James and Me by Northumbrian
Summary: Annabel has had a bad day. She tries to deal with it as best she can.
The last thing she needs is to meet someone else who has hurt her, someone who she hasn't seen in many years. Or is it?
Do people really change. Has James Sirius Potter finally grown up?
Note added by admin: while the H/G portion of this tale is secondary and comes later, the story is a fine addition to the Northumbrian post-canon, and is welcome at SIYE.
Categories: Post-Hogwarts, Post-DH/PM
Chapter 1: Cataclysm
Chapter 2: Persistence
Chapter 3: Dreaming
Chapter 4: Friendship
Chapter 5: Tiger
Chapter 6: Peverell?
Chapter 7: Suffering
Chapter 8: Friends
Chapter 9: Rose
Chapter 10: Bodyguards
Chapter 11: Visitor
Chapter 12: Seven
Chapter 13: Common Piece: Potters Alarmed
Chapter 14: Mysterious Stranger
Chapter 15: Cunning Plan
Chapter 1: Cataclysm
Author's Notes: This is one of two novel-length stories set after the events of Strangers at Drakeshaugh. It's also a story in which Harry and Ginny will be involved (at least at the start) only on the periphery. The Harry/Ginny involvement in this story will really begin after chapter 12, but until then, you're going to have to make do with a story about James Sirius Potter (age 23) and someone from his past. My thanks to the archivists for allowing me to submit it.
PS There's a lot more swearing in this one than I usually use. You have been warned.
It was seven o’clock in the morning when I finally decided that I wasn’t going to get any real sleep. I rolled off my bed, tiptoed into the kitchen, and began to make myself a pot of tea.
I immersed myself in the ritual, emptying and rinsing the kettle before filling it with fresh water and setting it to boil. Taking my mug from the tree, I found my strainer in the drawer and carefully set it in the mug.
As the kettle began its first hiss, I looked along the line of caddies. Definitely not the Mint Marrakesh, nor the Lapsang Souchong; I hesitated over the Himalayan Darjeeling, then considered the Ceylon Orange Pekoe, but I finally went for the Classic Earl Grey. I carefully placed the caddy next to my teapot, the traditional Brown Betty which Mum had bought for me when I’d left home. I lifted the teapot lid and, to my horror, I discovered that there was stale tea in it. After sniffing at it cautiously, and wrinkling my nose in disgust, I upended the pot over the sink. A couple of cheap supermarket own-brand teabags dropped out. From the state of them, they’d been there for weeks.
There were teabags in my teapot. Vicki couldn’t have done it. She wouldn’t dare. I’d made that abundantly clear to her on the one and only occasion she’d used my pot. She would never again presume to put teabags in my teapot, I was certain of it.
It could only have been Simon. I remembered the morning I’d left for home, three weeks earlier. The night before I’d caught the bus home, he’d stayed over, and that morning he’d made me breakfast in bed.
He’d made me tea and toast. I’d been so surprised that he’d done something so ordinary for me that I hadn’t complained about the tea or the bland white bread. He’d brought the stuff with him, he’d told me proudly. He’d been shopping.
“Tea is tea,” he’d told me, when I’d asked him what sort of tea it was. When I pointed out that I had five caddies of loose tea, he’d shrugged dismissively. “Teabags are so easy, Anna, none of the mess of the loose stuff.” None of the taste, either, I’d thought to myself, but I hadn’t complained at the time because he’d never, ever made me breakfast in bed before.
Tea bags and white bread; I should have realised. The useless, nasty, evil bastard! I added despoiling my teapot to his list of crimes. Why hadn’t I spotted the signs? My boyfriend–no, my ex-boyfriend–drank rubbish tea!
I filled the teapot with boiling water, swished it around, and tipped it down the sink. I then repeated the process twice more and sniffed the pot, making certain that there were no remnants of the horrible cheap tea in the pot. Satisfied, I added a generous measure of leaves, poured in the water, waited three minutes, and poured.
As I sipped the Earl Grey, I placed my tablet on the kitchen table, propped it up, and flicked it on to the BBC Breakfast News. I watched the world’s troubles and tried to persuade myself that lots of people were worse off than me. It was true, they were; but it didn’t make me feel any better. My problem, I realised, was that I still had feelings for him. I couldn’t figure out why.
At nine o’clock, my flatmate, Vicki, peered cautiously into the kitchen. When she saw that I wasn’t crying, she decided to try to cheer me up with her usual platitudes. I like Vicki, I really do; I wouldn’t be sharing a flat with her if I didn’t. She’s kind and clever, but sometimes she drives me crazy. And she’s completely bloody useless in a crisis. She began with, ‘How are you feeling?’ before moving on to, ‘It could be worse.’ Things went downhill from there.
Unable to cope with Vicki’s determined cheerfulness, I used Mum as an excuse to escape into my bedroom. I took my tablet with me, stood it upright, and made the call home. Mum answered almost immediately, and she instantly registered the red rims around my eyes.
‘Hello, Anna,’ she began.
‘Hi, Mum. I got back safely last night,’ I said, trying not to burst into tears. ‘Sorry, I didn’t get in touch to let you know.’
Mum turned away from the screen and said, ‘Out, Mike.’
‘But…’ I heard Dad begin.
Mum shook her head and stared at my dad with an expression I could read even though I could see little more than the back of her head. Our daughter needs her mother, the look said. She silently shooed Dad away. He’d never been in the webcam’s field of vision, but in my mind’s eye, I saw him shrugging worriedly, and ambling out of the living room.
‘What’s wrong, Annabel?’ Mum asked cautiously.
She’d used my Sunday name, another indication that she recognised that this was serious. I opened my mouth and the story of my return–a day earlier than I’d told Simon–and of my deciding to surprise my boyfriend came gushing out. The tear-filled tale of Simon’s infidelity was much edited, but I knew that Mum was capable of reading between the lines; she would easily fill in the gaps.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ I admitted.
‘I know how difficult it is when you fall out with your boyfriend, Anna. I still remember when Joe and I split up, and What Simon did is much, much worse.’
Joe? I’d stopped listening at Joe, Who the hell wass Joe? I couldn’t imagine Mum ever having been with someone other than Dad.
‘It was hard for me; I was unhappy for a few weeks, and I blamed myself. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that I was better off out of it. You’ve found out the hard way that you can’t trust Simon. If you can’t trust him once, then you will never be able to trust him again. Things have changed between you, and you’ve got to accept that. A clean break is the best thing for you to do.’
‘But Simon…’ I began.
Mum sighed. ‘I probably shouldn’t tell you this, Anna, but I never liked him. He always seemed a bit up himself.’
‘If you ever bring him back here, he’ll be in trouble anyway,’ Dad shouted from somewhere off screen. I should have realised that, despite being shooed from the room, he’d be hovering in the doorway, listening. Mum shushed him, motioned him away, and shook her head.
‘I think I’m still in love with him,’ I said quietly.
‘Ah,’ Mum said. She stared thoughtfully at me, and I watched as she gathered her thoughts. It was several seconds before she continued.
‘Here’s what I think, and please don’t get upset with me. It’s possible that you are, but perhaps you’re simply in love with the idea of being in love with him,’ Mum told me. ‘You’ve invested a lot of time and effort in your relationship with Simon, and one of the things you hate most in the world, Anna, is discovering that you’ve wasted your effort.’
I stared at her, shocked.
‘It’s true, Anna. You know it is.’
As I thought about it, I realised that she was right.
‘We can advise, but we can’t interfere, my bonnie lassie. You’re in Sheffield, and we’re almost two hundred miles away. You can come back home, if you want to…’
‘I’m not going to run away!’ I said.
Mum smiled. ‘That’s my girl. Do what you think is best. Just remember, we’re always here for you, and we’ll respect your decision, no matter what it is.’ I heard a grumble somewhere in the distance. ‘We will, won’t we, Mike?’ she said firmly.
‘I suppose…’ I heard Dad say grudgingly.
Eventually, Mum managed to change the subject, and got me talking about my coursework. By the time we finally said goodbye, I was feeling a lot better.
While I’d been talking to Mum, I’d heard the doorbell, and I’d heard Vicki answer. When I re-entered the lounge, there was a massive bouquet of flowers waiting for me.
‘Special delivery,’ said Vicki excitedly, her voice tinged with jealousy. ‘The woman from the florists said that it was the biggest bouquet anyone has ever ordered from her.’
I stared at the flowers and the message attached to them, and immediately wondered if I should reconsider my decision. Despite Mum’s advice, should I give him a second chance?
“I love you. Please forgive me, Simon”, the card declared. There was a restaurant invitation attached to the flowers, too. Simon was offering to take me to a very expensive restaurant in Peak District.
Vicki was no help, at least not at first. I stared at the flowers; it appeared that Simon had sent me the entire contents of a florist’s shop, wrapped in a big purple bow. He’d even remembered how much I hate pink.
‘You and Simon have been a bit up and down for a while, Anna. But you’re really well suited, and I’m sure that you could still make a go of it with him,’ Vicki said earnestly.
‘I suppose so…’ I began uncertainly. Then she told me.
‘And, after all, it isn’t the first time…’ Vicki added. Her tone was caring and consoling.
Although my mind was still in turmoil, the meaning of her final sentence was the killing blow, the fatal dagger strike to my heart. My uncertainty was elbowed out of the way by my anger. ‘Wait… what?’ I said. ‘It isn’t the first time? What the fuck do you mean, it isn’t the first time?’
Vicki’s mouth opened and closed like a feeding goldfish, and with no more sound. I watched as she tried to decide what to say next.
‘The truth, Vicki,’ I ordered sharply.
‘When he went to Kos with Pete and Matt at Easter, they … met … some girls,’ said Vicki, blurting out another awful truth in her panic. ‘Matt told me in confidence. He made me promise not to tell anyone.’ She looked fearfully into my face. Vicki keeps her promises. I’d always thought that was her great strength. ‘I thought you knew, Anna. I thought he’d told you. They met three girls while they were there.’
I shook my head in despair. I was trying to forget, and I’d been succeeding, but her words forced the events of previous evening back into my mind.
I’d caught the tram from Meadowhall and lugged my holdall and rucksack up the hill to Simon’s house. I could have phoned and asked him to collect me, but I hadn’t. I’d wanted to surprise him.
And I’d surprised him all right. He was on the sofa in his living room, trousers around his ankles, and she was underneath him. At first, I was incapable of registering what I was seeing. Embarrassed, I’d even said, ‘Oops, sorry,’ before my shocked brain realised exactly what I was witnessing. The girl had been embarrassed, too. She couldn’t look at me.
It seemed like forever, but it was probably only a fraction of a second before the reality of the situation hit, and I exploded. I screamed, swore, and broke down and cried, all at the same time. When Simon stopped repeating ‘Sorry,’ over and over again, and instead tried: ‘You should have phoned, instead of just turning up unannounced.’ I picked up an almost empty bottle of wine from the table and threw it at him. Fortunately, it missed him and hit the wall.
The worst part was that I couldn’t get the image of him shagging her out of my head.
‘I didn’t know, Vicki. But I do now! I will fucking kill him,’ I said, seething. ‘I hate him. He’s a fucking stuck-up, self absorbed, two-timing, arrogant fucking ponce!’ And I’ll still see him in lectures every day, I realised.
‘A lot of the other girls think that he’s good-looking, and he’s very well off,’ Vicki reminded me. ‘Yes, he’s … made a mistake, but he has said that he’s sorry. No one has ever sent me flowers like that.’ She stared longingly across the room. ‘He’s trying to apologise.’
‘Apologise! How can he possibly apologise?’ I refused to allow my anger to abate. ‘I caught him fucking another woman! And he has never even mentioned the holiday bird to me, either. He’s a fucking two-timing fucking snooty fucking bastard. It’s not a fucking second chance he wants from me, Vicki; it’s a fucking third chance. And he doesn’t get one of those.’ I glared at her. ‘Simon Faversham can take a flying fuck at the moon. I hope he crashes his fucking Audi. Fucking twat!’
‘You came back home a day early,’ said Vicki unthinkingly. Her face was full of panic as she tried–and failed–to calm me down.
Her words were enough to make me explode, but I bit my tongue. Jesus! My flatmate might be a mathematical genius, but she could be so dim sometimes. Did she really think that it would have been okay if I hadn’t found out?
‘And, besides, I might be wrong about Chantelle. Maybe it was just one night, not the entire holiday,’ said Vicki as she haplessly continued to pour oil, not water, onto the flames of my fury.
‘Chantelle,’ I said, completely losing control. ‘Chan-fucking-telle! You even know her fucking name! Why the fuck didn’t you fucking tell me?’
‘I didn’t want to upset you,’ said Vicki tearfully. ‘And please don’t swear so much, Anna.’
‘You didn’t want to upset me?’ I shouted. ‘You’ve just told me that last night wasn’t the first time my boyfriend cheated on me. How the fu…’ Her expression stopped me in mid-flow. Vicki, bless her, was a sensitive soul, she didn’t me like swearing, and she hated it when bad things happened. My flatmate was close to breaking point, I realised. She didn’t cope very well with unpleasantness. If I wasn’t careful, I would end up comforting her. This isn’t her fault, I reminded myself; at least, not much.
I sighed. ‘Sorry, Vicki. I should be shouting at him, not you. I didn’t get much sleep last night, and I’m still stressing! I can’t cope with this, and neither can you. You need some peace and quiet, and I need to think.’ I made my decision. ‘I’m going out. I don’t know when I’ll be back.’
There was only one place I could go to work off my anger, only one place where I could get some uninterrupted thinking time. I went to my room, pulled out a costume, a hat, and a towel, and rammed them into my sports bag.
I said my farewell with fake cheeriness to a still worried, but slightly calmer, Vicki. ‘See you later.’ I called as I walked past the living room.
‘Don’t do anything silly,’ she begged.
‘I’m not going to drown myself,’ I told her. ‘I’m not even going to drown my sorrows. I’m going to tire myself out, that’s all. Bye, Vicki.’ I gave her a false smile and left.
The flat that Vicki and I were renting was in Crookesmoor, and it was almost two miles from Pond’s Forge. As I walked, I considered going to the Goodwin, to the university pool. I knew that if I did, there was a chance I might meet someone I knew, or someone who knew me. I might even meet Simon, as that was where we played squash. I didn’t want conversation, or questions, or sympathy, so I headed past the university buildings, aiming for the city centre. It was a walk I hadn’t done in many months.
I hadn’t done much walking since I met Simon. I hadn’t needed to walk. I’d bagged the rich student with the flash car and the big house his mummy and daddy had bought for him.
Anger, confusion, and fear swirled through my head as I walked. Part of me was still panicking. If I finished with him, then I wouldn’t have a boyfriend.
If! My God, was I that pathetic? I didn’t need Simon. I didn’t need anyone.
Could I ever trust him again? I knew the answer to that question: I couldn’t. But that didn’t matter, because it was over, wasn’t it? My brain was being treacherous. I’d helped him find his house; I’d recently met his parents, and I’d even tried to like them, despite the obvious way they looked down their noses at my accent. We’d been together for so long.
Was he really the one? Six months ago, I’d have said yes without hesitation. But six months ago he’d been unfaithful for the first time. Was that the only time? Was it the first time? It certainly wasn’t the last.
‘Fuck,’ I said loudly. The woman walking past me frowned in disapproval.
Why was I finding it so difficult? Everything I was feeling was Simon’s fault. It was his fault that I’d been crying. It was his fault that I was unhappy. I was about halfway down Broad Lane when it began to rain. I decided to blame Simon for that, too. The wanker!
It began as a shower. But a few minutes after the first few spots had spattered innocently around me, saying “don’t mind us, we’re nothing to worry about”, the sky rapidly darkened. I quickened my pace as the raindrops rapidly increased in both size and frequency. Soon, the water was bouncing off the pavements and gurgling down the gutters. It was early September, but the rain was cold. I watched as everyone else put up hoods or dashed for shelter; I didn’t join them.
As I trudged determinedly on, the wet streets became almost deserted. I was getting soaked, but that didn’t matter, because I was going to get wet soon anyway. My hair was plastered to my skull, and the rain was running down my neck. My almost knee-length sweatshirt was sodden, while my leggings were cold and wet on my legs.
I’d wasted more than a year of my life on a stupid boy! It was over. I could use the water to wash him away.
I stamped in a puddle and revelled in the splash. It brought back memories of the hills of my childhood, the hills where my parents still lived. I remembered those days, and I smiled at good times, magical times. Things are so much easier when you’re six, or eight, or ten. I jumped into the next puddle with both feet, making a satisfying splash, so I did the same in the next puddle, and the next.
Then Simon sneaked back into my head again. He had said that he loved me so many times, and he’d even written it on the card I’d received with the flowers. Until then, I’d always believed him when he said it. Perhaps he meant it this time, too. Perhaps this was simply an aberration. Perhaps I should hear his side of the story; after all, I hadn’t allowed him to explain, I had simply exploded.
I remembered our first meeting. ‘Can I borrow your lecture notes, Annabel? You know that I don’t fully understand the intricacies of property law. You’re so much better at that stuff than me.
Since then, we’d studied together almost every day. ‘Can you take a look at this essay for me? I think that it’s okay, but…’ He had such a nice smile, and he was polite, and he made me laugh. Should I go back and see what he had to say for himself? Was he really sorry? Was I the one being unreasonable?
Damn him! I really did need to keep away from him. Why the hell was I making excuses for him? I found another puddle and, again, I jumped into it with both feet. It was a lot deeper than I thought, and I created a huge splash.
‘Thanks very much,’ said a man’s voice sarcastically. Because of me, he was wet up to the knees. In my distracted state, I hadn’t noticed him. He had been standing in a bus shelter, hidden behind the advertisement as he waited for the rain to stop. From the rapidly approaching blue sky, I knew he wouldn’t be waiting for much longer.
‘Sor…’ I stopped mid-stride and mid-apology and stared at him. The broad-shouldered, and even-featured six-footer’s hair was a shade too dark to be called truly ginger; his clear hazel eyes were bright and full of curiosity. I looked into his freckle-dusted face and realised that he was struggling to recognise me.
That was what gave me the advantage over him. I added the clues together. His “do I know you?” look, his hair and freckles, and those eyes; the eyes alone were enough. I was suddenly certain that I was facing another stupid, hurtful, and nasty boy from my past. But that was ridiculous; it couldn’t be him. Why on earth would he be in Sheffield?
‘The word you’re looking for is sorry, not sor…’ he told me. He was still staring inquisitively at me, and he was smiling that all-purpose “who-the-hell-are-you” smile. The smile people use when they’re certain they know you, but they can’t put a name to your face. I saw no reason to enlighten him.
‘I am very sorry for splashing you,’ I told him with as much sincerity as I could muster. Turning away from him, I continued on my way. I was approaching a junction and, as I prepared to turn the corner, I looked back up the street. He was still staring at me, still trying to figure out who I was. That was when I was completely certain that I knew who he was, and that he did not recognise me. Of course, my hair was wet, a lot more blonde, and a great deal shorter, than the last time he’d seen me.
‘Unless, of course, your name is James Sirius Potter, in which case you deserved that soaking, and lot more besides.’ I yelled.
That was it! He left the bus shelter and splashed through the puddles after me. I quickened my pace, deliberately ignoring his calls.
‘Who are you?’ he shouted. ‘I thought I recognised you. You obviously know me, but I can’t remember where we’ve met.’
‘Where we met doesn’t matter,’ I called over my shoulder. ‘You’ve obviously forgotten me, but I’ll always remember James Sirius Potter. You’re just another vile member of the male sex.’
He dashed in front of me, turned, and tried to get me to stop and talk. I was having none of it, so I dodged past him. For a second, I thought that he was going to grab my arm, but he took one look at my face and decided against it. Instead, he turned and matched his stride with mine. I quickened my pace and tried to ignore him.
‘Were we at school together?’ he asked. His face creased in concentration and I realised that the fact that he couldn’t place me was really annoying him.
‘We might have been,’ I said evasively, beginning to enjoy his confusion. ‘You really have no idea, do you? Please don’t tell me that you’ve moved to Sheffield, James. The last thing I need is another fucking idiot-boy hanging around.’
‘I’ve never been here before. I’m going to the University this afternoon, to visit my cousin I thought I’d take a look around the city first,’ he told me. He’d looked so shocked by my casual swearing that I wondered why he was prolonging the conversation.
‘Rosie, Hugo, or one of the other ones?’ I asked, trying to confuse him.
He burst out laughing. ‘Is this some sort of wind-up?’ he asked. ‘If you know Rose and Hugo, then you must have been at school with me.’
‘Possibly,’ I admitted.
‘That’s a relief; why didn’t you say? I’ve been so careful what I’ve been saying. I was beginning to think that you were just some random Muggle I’d met once! Who are you? Which house were you in? You’re not a Gryffindor.’ Then his face fell. ‘You’re not from the Prophet, are you?’
By then, I’d reached Pond’s Forge. As he followed me into the reception area, I turned on him.
‘Muggle? Gryffindor? I’d forgotten all of the random nonsense words you used to use. You’re a fucking cretin, James Potter! You haven’t changed at all,’ I told him. ‘You’re still talking shite, still telling ridiculous stories. You were exactly the same at school.’
He stared at me, and then he looked around the building as if he hadn’t realised where he was. I strolled over to the reception desk.
‘One student swim,’ I told the receptionist, as I dripped on the floor. I flashed my student card at her, while making sure that he couldn’t see it. It didn’t matter, because we were standing in a swimming pool, and the location finally gave me away.
‘Oh, shit,’ he said. ‘You’re little Annie Charlton.’ I saw the horror and guilt in his eyes. He stood there staring, his mouth open. He said nothing. James Potter, the boy who never shut up, was lost for words.
‘Little?’ I said scornfully, staring him straight in the eyes. ‘I’m five foot eight, and my name is Annabel. My friends call me Anna, and you’re not my friend, little Jimmy Pee; I don’t think you ever were! So you can spin on this, you arse!’ I gave him the finger, turned on my heels, and headed for the stairs to the changing rooms.
‘I was an arse,’ he said quietly. ‘But that was years ago, Annie … Annabel. I was thirteen and stupid.’
‘Thirteen and stupid or twenty-three and stupid–what’s the difference?’ I asked him.
‘Ten years,’ he said promptly. ‘You might think that I’m still stupid, but at least Mrs Green taught me how to do my addings-up, and my take-aways. Although I’m not quite twenty-three yet, Ann…Annabel.’
So, I couldn’t render him speechless and sad for long. He still had a flippant answer for everything. Well, almost everything. I tried to hide my smile, strode ahead of him and dashed down the stairs to the changing rooms.
I pulled open the changing room door and pointed at the sign. ‘Goodbye, James Potter,’ I said. ‘Women’s changing! You can’t come in.’
‘I really am sorry,’ he said as I closed the door. His face seemed to show genuine sorrow and regret, his eyes were creased in remembrance. Did he really regret the hurt he’d inflicted on me such a long time ago?
James Potter’s sad face was still in my mind while I was peeling off my sodden clothes and stuffing them into a locker. The memories came flooding back.
My brother, Henry, had been James’ best friend from the day they started school. They weren’t even five at the time. I’d grown up with the Potters, and their cousins Rosie and Hugo. I was younger than Al and older than Lily, fitting neatly into the school year between them.
I wondered how they were all doing, particularly Al. He’d always been a nice little boy. He’d been quiet and gentle, not like James, or my brother Henry, or, for that matter, Lily. I would never find out, I realised with some regret, because I was certain that I’d never see James again.
I’d packed my Speedo open back kneeskin suit. Once black, it was old, chlorine faded, and well past its best, but it was the one I always wore for training sessions. As I pulled it on and adjusted it, I realised that it was a long time since I’d been in a pool. Simon didn’t see the point in swimming; he’d complained, told me that I always smelled of chlorine. Since we’d got together, I’d gone from eight hours of swimming a week to six, and then three, and then down to one. I prepared to walk onto poolside, realising that I hadn’t been in the water for three months.
Simon had persuaded me to take up squash instead. He’d had years of practice at the game, and he regularly and invariably trounced me. I had got fed up of always being beaten, so I’d taken lessons. Finally, after our second year exams, a week before I went home, I’d managed to win a match. That was when I discovered what a bad loser he was. He barely spoke to me for days afterwards.
Silently cursing Simon, I tucked my hair into my white cap and pulling on my goggles, I strode out onto the poolside and looked around for a quiet lane.
There was only one person in the backstroke lane, an elderly woman who was at the far side of the pool, so I decided to warm up with a few lengths on my back. I counted my strokes; I had no alternative, as there were no turn flags to help me. But my strokes were short; I rolled into my turn much too early and was forced to fly-kick my way to the wall in order to tumble.
When I broke surface, I concentrated on increasing the power of my pulls. I was woefully out of practice. As I stared at the ceiling and felt the water surging around me, I fantasised about setting fire to Simon’s car, and about kicking him in the bollocks. As I searched for another ignominy to heap on him, an idea hit me. I wondered what it would be like to immerse both Simon, and James Potter, in a vat of itching powder. I was gleefully imagining their skin turning red and erupting in painful boils when I hit my hand on the poolside. My angry thoughts of revenge had obviously increased my backstroke speed.
Treading water, I looked at the back of my hand. It was tingling, and there was no doubt that I’d have a bruise. Deciding that I’d had enough of the backstroke, I ducked under the lane rope and joined the freestyle swimmers. As I pulled myself through the water, my confusion and anger finally began to fade.
I would be single. I could be selfish. I could eat when and where I wanted; I could swim whenever I wanted. I could be Anna, not Simon’s girlfriend. I could decide what to do. I could go out clubbing and get drunk, like I had with Simon, or I could stay at home with a nice cup of tea and a good book.
Ponds Forge is a fifty metre pool, but for some reason they usually put the lane ropes in from side to side making it instead a very wide twenty-five metre pool. As I swam, I slipped naturally into my old training routine, choosing one of my toughest, fifteen hundred metres freestyle. I ploughed steadily up and down, feeling better with every metre I swam.
At least at the beginning of my swim, I did.
Every hundred metres, I checked my split times on the clock, and after the first four hundred metres, I began my practice drills. It was amazing how easily I slipped back into my old training routine, and it was horrifying how uncoordinated I was. I did okay for a while, but my stamina had gone. While I was concentrating on my drills, my pace slowed dramatically.
I always attempted to finish a session by sprinting the final two hundred. When I finally reached that point, I tried, but I could barely pick up my pace. I was running on annoyance at my lack of fitness, determination to reach the target I’d set myself, and spite. This was definitely Simon’s fault. Why had he persuaded me to stop swimming? When I’d started going out with him, I’d been close to making the university team. Now, it would take me months to regain that level of fitness. Squash simply wasn’t the same.
When I finally finished swimming my stroke was all to hell, and I was so knackered that I could barely pull myself from the pool. I realised that I’d be stiff and sore the following day, but if I was going to get back in shape, I needed to get back to my old training routine. I staggered towards the changing room, feeling very light-headed and a little faint. I’d been stupid; I knew I wasn’t fit, and yet I’d pushed myself too hard. I needed to take it easy, to build slowly. I should have brought myself something to drink, too.
It wasn’t until I walked into the changing room that I realised I’d forgotten more than a drink; I’d brought neither shower gel nor shampoo with me, either. Fortunately, someone had discarded an almost empty shower gel in one corner of the showers. By prising off the top, and holding the container under the shower head, I managed to get a pathetic amount of lather into my hair. I wasn’t really clean, but I’d managed to remove most of the chlorine from my hair. As I stood under the shower, I forgot all about Simon and instead remembered James Potter.
I remembered Al first. I could still see his horror-filled face. It was the last thing I saw before my eyelids swelled to the point where I was blind. The last thing I remember hearing was James’ pathetic excuse: ‘It was only a joke,’ as his extremely angry father shouted louder than I’d ever heard him shout before.
It was my eleventh birthday, and all of my school friends were there. It was Easter, so Al and James, both back home from their public school in Scotland, had come to the party along with Lily and their parents. James, tall, good-looking and thirteen, had taken me aside and given me “a special present for a special girl”. I’d been giddily excited when I’d unwrapped it. According to the label, it was “diamond dust” body sparkle, lipstick, and mascara. The pretty little girl in the picture on the box was sparkling like a vampire in the sunlight (I know--I was eleven--that’s my only excuse). I had dashed up to my room and applied the stuff liberally. Soon, my arms and face were sparkling like the girl in the photo. I’d only just got back downstairs when whatever James had put in it started to work. My skin came up in an extremely itchy rash, and my eyelids and lips developed huge and painful boils. I began to scream, but the boils on my lips soon made that impossible, and all I could do was whimper in pain.
I can’t really remember much after that. I know that Mum carefully carried me upstairs, and James’ mum followed, apologising profusely as she tried to help Mum wash the stuff off me.
That was the beginning and end of my birthday party. The guests were all sent home. Mr Potter had taken his crying kids away and returned, remarkably quickly, with an antidote. He had arrived just in time, as, after ten minutes under the shower, I was still mewling in agony and Mum was about to take me to hospital.
Mrs Potter helped Mum to apply the antidote. The cream had worked almost immediately on the painful boils on my eyes and lips. The disfiguring rash on my arms and face, however, had taken a lot longer to fade. I spent the evening of my birthday standing in the bathroom in my underwear, trying not to scratch my blotchy red skin, and crying. I refused to leave the house for a week, until every last blemish had gone.
Mr and Mrs Potter tried to apologise. Mr Potter told Dad that he was grounding James until the summer holidays. Nevertheless, my dad never really forgave James. He refused to allow Henry to visit his friend over the summer holidays. Two or three years earlier, Henry would have raised merry hell about that. But by then neither James nor Al, were at Middle School. The Potter boys were both attending a fee-paying school and, as a consequence of their separation, Henry and James were slowly drifting apart. Henry had a new best friend at Middle School, and James had found one in his new school, too.
Mum and Mrs Potter had been friends for years, but my eleventh birthday party almost broke them apart. They made up, but it was never the same, and the visits became more and more infrequent. Then, when Lily went off to the same school as her brothers, the Potters moved back to London. They apparently visited their country home occasionally during the summer, but we never saw them again. As I concentrated on those old events, I knew that there was more, that my usually excellent memory was failing me.
Lost in memories, I’d been vigorously towelling myself dry. My skin was tingling from my efforts. Cursing James Potter, I began to get dressed. When I pulled my clothes from the locker, I was astonished to discover that they were remarkably dry and warm to the touch. It was as if they’d been freshly laundered. Surely the changing room wasn’t that warm?
I packed my bag and considered my options. What now? I wondered. I was absolutely knackered, and my legs were like jelly. I didn’t feel like walking home. Not only was it a long walk, and mostly uphill, but I still wasn’t ready to face Vicki. I checked my watch–it was only eleven in the morning. I picked up my bag and headed up the stairs, still uncertain where I was going.
When I reached the top of the stairs James Potter was leaning against a pillar in the reception area. He’d obviously been waiting for me. I wondered if he’d been on the spectator balcony, watching me in the water. He bounced rapidly towards me, smiling that silly smile of his and looking like a gawky teenager, not a man of twenty-two.
Back to index
Chapter 2: PersistencePersistence
‘Hello, Annabel,’ said James cheerfully. ‘I’ve…’
‘I thought I’d told you to fuck off,’ I said, with as much venom as my tired mind and body could muster.
‘I will,’ he said, chastened but still determinedly upbeat. ‘But not until you drink one of these.’
He thrust two bottles at me; one was a bright blue energy drink, the other was a bottle of water. While I was surprised by his thoughtfulness, I wasn’t prepared to give him an easy time.
‘If you think that I’m ever going to accept another gift from you, you’re an even bigger wanker than I thought you were,’ I told him.
I was elated by his reaction. He slumped, deflated, in front of my eyes. I’d managed to puncture him, and suddenly, his bounce was gone. He stood flat and lifeless, still holding the plastic bottles like some sort of offering.
‘I deserved that,’ he said regretfully.
‘Yeah, so fuck off,’ I told him. I watched him wince as I swore once again, but he didn’t give up.
‘Would it help to persuade you if I drank some first?’ he asked. ‘You’ve swum yourself to exhaustion, Annabel, and you didn’t take a drink onto poolside with you. Hydration, remember? That’s what Mr Fox, and your mum, used to say.’
I was startled by his sudden naming of our old swimming coach, but I rallied quickly. ‘It’s none of your business what I do, Potter. So why don’t you just fuck off and leave me alone?’ I asked. My swearing was making him cringe.
‘Because of your face,’ he said quietly. ‘Because of that look, the look you gave me when you recognised me. It was–I didn’t like it–splashing me wasn’t punishment enough, that was obvious–I really hurt you, didn’t I?’
Astonished, I nodded.
‘You ruined my birthday party and gave me a rash which didn’t fade for weeks. I was embarrassed and in agony! Why did you do it?’ I said, taking the opportunity to ask him the question I’d wanted answering for years.
‘I made the stuff myself. I wanted to do something to impress my Uncle George. I needed to test it, but Al and Lily were always too suspicious of me, and so was everyone at school.’ As he stared sadly into my face, his eyes seemed to be focussed on the past; it was as if he was seeing me as that screaming eleven-year-old.
‘You were an easy target, no other reason,’ he admitted. Remorse was visible in the corners of his eyes and I could see it creeping across his face. It appeared that the memories were torturing him, and I wondered whether, if I could find the right words, I could actually make him cry.
‘Pathetic, wasn’t I?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ I told him.
He nodded in sad and silent agreement. I simply glared at him, enjoying his discomfort. I watched this knuckles whiten as he clenched the bottles tightly. He slumped, and squirmed in discomfort under my unforgiving gaze. Eventually, he continued.
‘I’d be lying to you if I said that I’ve been wracked with guilt for all these years, Annabel. To be honest, I’d almost forgotten it, forgotten you; I’d even almost forgotten Henry, despite the great times we had when we were little. But–like I said–the expression on your face after you’d accidentally splashed me; bloody hell that worried me. I had no idea who you were, but you’d obviously recognised me, and you really hated me. It wasn’t until we got here, and I finally figured out who you were, that I finally understood why. I’m really sorry.’
I stared at him. James Potter was apologising to me, really apologising. I tried to take pleasure from it, but so many years after the event, there was little comfort to be had.
‘I was punished, you know,’ James told me. ‘At the time, I thought Dad was being so unreasonable, so did Mum. They argued about it. Mum thought that Dad was being much too hard on me.’
‘Punished?’ I asked.
‘I was in the school … hockey team. Dad took away my stick and wrote to the Headmistress telling her that I wasn’t allowed to play. I missed the last game of the year; my house team lost the game, and the cup. The rest of the team hated me for it. They all blamed me, but I blamed Dad. I shouldn’t have; he was right, I deserved it.’
‘Good,’ I said harshly. I tried to harden my heart. But the James before me was a lost and sad little boy. I had forced him to confront something he’d forgotten. If he was faking his remorse, he was doing an extremely good job of it. He looked so ashamed of himself that I had to force myself not to step forwards and hug him.
‘I sat and watched you swimming, Annie,’ he admitted. ‘You’ve been out of the water for a long time, haven’t you? It’s obvious from your stroke. And you set yourself a punishing target. I lost count; what did you do, fifteen hundred?’
‘You’ve done a lot of exercise, a lot more than you should have, I suspect. Now drink something. Replenish those fluids. It isn’t poisoned or anything. Watch!’ he said.
He opened both bottles. Upending the energy drink first, he tipped some of the blue liquid into his mouth, and grimaced. ‘That is truly horrible,’ he said. He then did the same with the water. ‘Choose one, or take both, but please drink something,’ he begged.
I took the water from him. ‘You can drink that,’ I told him.
He shook his head. ‘It’s vile; I’d rather not,’ he said.
I narrowed my eyes and glared at him.
‘Ah, payback time, nine years later,’ he said. He gave me a rueful smile, shrugged in resignation, wrinkled his nose, and took three huge gulps. When he stopped, and pulled a disgusted face, the bottle was half-empty.
‘That’s even worse than a Gurdyroot infusion,’ he declared.
‘Gurdyroot?’ I asked, sighing at his use of yet another nonsense word.
He shrugged and smiled. ‘I don’t suppose you remember my aunt Luna?’ he asked.
‘Of course I remember her. No one who’s ever met your “aunt” Luna could possibly forget her, could they?’ I grinned at the memory. ‘She wasn’t really your aunt, just a friend of your mum and dad. Blonde hair, staring eyes, completely bonkers, and absolutely no dress sense,’ I smiled at the memory of the eccentric and flamboyant woman.
‘That’s her,’ he said, laughing. ‘She hasn’t changed. I have no idea what’s in Aunt Luna’s Gurdyroot infusion. She claims it’s good for you, but it’s been our measure of nasty tastes for years.’
I drank the water he’d given me. I’d meant to sip it daintily, but he was right. I should have taken a drink onto the poolside. I soon found that I’d finished it.
‘Want another one?’ he asked. ‘I’ll buy one for you. I’ll even drink another one of these, if you insist. He waved the half empty bottle of blue stuff at me. ‘Or would you rather have a cuppa? I would love a cuppa. Tea might wash away this vile taste.’
James was a remorseful puppy, begging for forgiveness. I no longer wanted to swear at him, but I had no idea what I did want from him.
‘I’ll pay,’ he offered. ‘How’s Henry? How are your parents? I’d like to know.’
That was his winning card. I was overcome with curiosity myself. I wanted to know about Al and Lily and Rosie and Hugo. I looked over to the café and was suddenly ravenous. I hadn’t eaten since the sandwich I’d had on the Supercoach from Newcastle the previous afternoon.
‘Earl Grey tea, no milk, no sugar, and a bacon and egg butty with brown sauce,’ I ordered.
At least breakfast would keep me away from my flat for a while longer. I certainly didn’t feel at all guilty about letting him buy me breakfast, either. There were a lot of ways I could make him pay for what he’d done, and one of them was to make him literally pay.
‘Does anyone actually put milk or sugar in Earl Grey?’ he asked, shuddering at the idea. He stared into my eyes, looking concerned. ‘No pre-swim breakfast?’
I shook my head.
‘No breakfast, and angry enough to swim yourself to exhaustion,’ he observed thoughtfully. He stared into my face, and I found myself caught in his gaze. His eyes were bright hazel and, where the green segued seamlessly into the brown flashes of bright gold glinted in them. I could see him thinking, and I heard him sigh in relief.
‘It’s more than me, isn’t it? I hope that you don’t think I’m big-headed. I knew you were angry, and I thought that I was the reason behind all of your anger. I’m not, am I? There’s something else bothering you, and I’m simply the person you could vent your spleen upon. I suppose that I should be grateful.’ He tried a cautious smile. ‘At least you didn’t take it out on someone who didn’t deserve it. Do you want to talk about it?’
‘No.’ I shook my head again. ‘You can tell me all about Lily and Al, especially Al. I always thought that he was much nicer than you.’
James chuckled. ‘He was. He probably still is,’ he admitted. ‘We can catch up, can’t we?’
I nodded, and staggered. Finally, my sleepless night, and my exhausting swim were catching up with me.
‘You should sit down,’ he said.
I took the energy drink from his hands and walked over to an empty table. Taking the chair facing the counter, I watched as James walked over to the self-service counter, picked up a tray, and began to fill my order. Two young women at an adjacent table were also assessing him. They obviously liked what they saw. James was smartly dressed in charcoal grey trousers and a pale blue short-sleeved shirt, and he moved with a confident grace. I had to admit to myself that he was pleasing to the eye. As he ordered, James said something to the plump middle-aged lady behind the counter, and she laughed.
‘Brown or white bap?’ he shouted across to me.
‘Brown, of course,’ I said. ‘It’s the healthy option.’ His face creased into the brightest of smiles.
As I sat, I wondered what I’d achieved with my swim. I ached everywhere, inside and out, but I had accomplished something, I now knew that I was definitely going to finish with Simon. I was single.
I took a sip of the energy drink. James was right; it was a sticky glucose and sugar drink of the sort you could tell was rotting your teeth with every sip. ‘I’d rather have an Irn Bru,’ I muttered to myself, but I was so thirsty that I finished it anyway. As I examined the empty bottle, I realised that it was the brand I’d always insisted on drinking at the junior swimming competitions we’d attended. At one time, ten or more years ago, I’d actually liked this stuff.
I looked again at the bottle, and stared curiously at James as he pushed the tray along to the till. He’d never appeared to pay much attention to me at the competitions. I’d sat with the girls, and he’d sat with the boys. Perhaps his choice of drink was mere coincidence.
Whatever James said when he paid made the checkout woman smile, too. When he turned to face me, his demeanour changed. Balancing the laden tray on one hand, James minced over to the table, every inch of him exuding the style of a waiter in a very posh restaurant.
‘Your breakfast, Modom,’ he said through pursed lips. ‘One bacon and egg butty, in a very healthy brown bap, and a pot of Earl Grey’s finest tea.’ He identified each item as he placed them in front of me, keeping the tray balanced on one hand as he did so.
‘Thank you,’ I said politely, trying not to smile. That had always been the problem with James; he could always make you laugh, make you forget how horrible he’d been.
He placed another pot of tea in front of the chair opposite mine and sat.
‘You’ve worked as a waiter,’ I told him.
‘For a few months, I’ve worked in a lot of places for a few months. They always find me out, eventually,’ he admitted. ‘Shall I pour? You can’t leave Earl Grey to stew; it ruins the flavour.’
I nodded, because I was busy eating the butty. As he poured the tea, I bit into the bun and burst the egg. A mix of yolk and brown sauce dribbled onto my chin.
‘I forgot to get us serviettes,’ he said. He was on his feet instantly.
He grabbed at least half-a-dozen serviettes from the dispenser. The thirteen-year-old James I remembered wasn’t this thoughtful. I was surprised, but also reminded of my useless big brother. An immature fool until he got his first job, and then, suddenly, Henry was Mr Sensible; he’d even started saving up to buy himself a flat.
James handed me one of the serviettes. I took it gratefully and concentrated on chewing the large bite of sandwich while wiping my chin.
‘You’ve grown up,’ he said, pouring his own tea.
‘That’s what happens,’ I told him. ‘We all get older. Mum was fifty in March. We had a big birthday party for her.’ And I took Simon with me, and he met Mum and Dad, and all of their relatives and friends, and he’s in pretty much every photograph, I thought gloomily.
‘Cheer up, Annie. Fifty isn’t old,’ said James, misunderstanding the reason for my expression. He grinned. ‘At least, that’s what my Aunt Fleur told everyone on her last birthday.’
‘I suppose,’ I said, not bothering to correct him about the reason for my despondency. I tried to change the subject. ‘Do you still swim?’
‘I stopped swimming for a few years when I went to school, but I started training again about five years ago. It’s the only thing I haven’t given up on after a few months,’ he admitted. ‘I go swimming four nights a week, although I joined a triathlon club, not a swimming club.’
‘I’ve thought about that option myself,’ I admitted. ‘But I’m not much of a runner.’
‘Cycling is my weak link,’ said James. We talked about sports until I’d finished the butty, and then James asked the inevitable question. ‘How’s Henry?’
‘He was driving Mum and Dad crazy for a while,’ I said. ‘He didn’t do as well as he should have at school, and in the end he simply stopped going. Mum and Dad found out, eventually. They were furious with him, and he was in a lot of trouble with them until he got a job; he’s working in a Nissan Dealership. He’s their electric car expert. It turns out that he’s more hands-on than academic, and according to Mum he really loves what he does. What about Al, and Lily, and Rosie and Hugo, for that matter?’
‘Al’s working for Dad, and so is Hugo. I can’t say more than that. Official Secrets Act, remember?’
I nodded. James’ dad had a job in National security. Counter-terrorism, so far as I could remember. It was all very secret and mysterious.
‘Al’s got a girlfriend; she’s called Violet, and they seem to be pretty serious. They’ve been together for years, since Vi was fifteen, in fact. Lily’s living in Wales, on Anglesea. Unlike me, she stuck with … hockey, and she plays for a local team. Rosie told me that she’s just got herself a new boyfriend. He’s older than me, and he’s got a son who’ll be four very soon. Mum and Dad don’t know about him yet. It’s going to be fun when Dad finds out.
Rosie is the reason I’m here. She’s at the University of Sheffield. She got her degree at Warwick–maths, but she’s moved up here to do a Doctorate. Don’t ask me any more than that; it’s something to do with unreal and imaginary numbers, string theory and quantum mechanics. She says it’s the mathematics of how impossible things happen. Her mum’s very excited by it.’
We talked for over an hour, about friends and family and what they, and we, were doing. James had been through a string of jobs–drifting–he admitted. But he believed that he had finally found his vocation. He was working as a journalist. He thought that he’d finally found something he really wanted to do, he assured me. That was when I admitted that I was doing a law degree, and that I hoped to specialise in human rights law.
I was in mid-flow when one of the café staff cleared the table and began scrubbing it clean despite our presence.
Looking around, I realised that the place was full. There were no empty tables and we we’d been finished for a while. As we weren’t eating or drinking; they were politely trying to tell us that they wanted us to leave.
‘We’d better go,’ I said.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Are you doing anything now?’
I shook my head.
‘I’ve never been to Sheffield before. Would you like to be my guide to the city?’
‘Why not?’ I agreed. Anything was better than returning to my flat, and James seemed to be genuinely interested in my opinions on why our troubled world needed the European Convention on Human Rights more than ever.
We walked and talked for over an hour. The weather could not have been more different from when I’d arrived at the pool. The sun was shining, only the deepest of puddles remained, and even they were little more than damp reminders of the morning’s rain.
I took him to the Peace Garden and the Winter Garden and, at a little after one o’clock, he bought me a salad lunch in Leopold Square. That was when he told me about Kristen, the girl he’d split up with two months earlier, and that was when I told him about Simon. He was incensed on my behalf.
‘If you were my girl…’ he began angrily.
‘Aren’t you supposed to be meeting Rose for lunch?’ I remembered, interrupting him.
‘Damn, I’m late! I’ll put her off,’ he said, pulling out a mirror-like wood-effect phone from his pocket. I’d never seen anything like it. He simply touched the screen and said, ‘Rose.’
‘One o’clock, you told me, James,’ Rose’s voice carried across the table. ‘You promised! You are without a doubt the least reliable…’
‘Something’s come up, Rose,’ he interrupted. ‘You’ll never guess who I’ve just met.’
I urgently shook my head, and then wondered why I didn’t want him to tell her. He touched the screen again and pressed the phone to his ear. I could no longer hear Rose’s side of the conversation, but I listened to his side and smiled.
‘I’m not telling you,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to guess.’
‘No, I’m not telling,’ he said, grinning at me and winking. ‘Okay, she’s a girl, and she’s at Sheffield University, just like you.’
‘No, she’s not doing Maths.’
‘Well, that’s all right, then, isn’t it? I’ve done the right thing for once, even if it’s by accident. You really don’t want your daftest cousin playing gooseberry; do you, Rosie-posy?’
‘Only third daftest? Who?’
‘Okay, I’ll concede the gold medal to Louis, but Lucy?’
‘Did she really?’ James laughed.
‘Is he good-looking?’
‘Well, you enjoy yourself, Rosie-posy. I’ll call round and see you later and, provided that you’re nice to me, I won’t drop you in it with your dad at Grandma’s, a week on Sunday. Bye.’ He put the phone back into his pocket and grinned at me.
‘Rose has been asked out to lunch herself, by a fellow student,’ said James. ‘He’s a physicist who is working with her tutor. He’s approaching her theories from a testable, practical perspective.’
‘And is he good-looking?’ I asked.
‘He’s a genius, apparently,’ said James. ‘And that is the only thing which matters to Rose, which is probably just as well. I think she’s pleased that I’ve cancelled. After all, three’s a crowd, and I’m really very good at cramping her style.’
‘And Al’s, too, I imagine,’ I said.
James laughed. ‘Not any more,’ he said. ‘These days, he just frowns at me and says, “Oh, grow up, James”. So does Vi–his girlfriend, and she’s only eighteen!’
James’ face had changed and his voice had deepened as he quoted his brother. I could see the little Al I remembered in the way James had reset his shoulders and subtly changed his posture.
‘Good for him,’ I said. ‘You were really quite horrible to him when we were little, you know. You and Henry were always picking on him because he was always so friendly towards us girls.’
‘If I’d known you were going to grow up tall, blonde, and gorgeous, I’d have been a lot friendlier to you, too,’ said James.
I stared at him. He was looking at me hopefully, waiting for me to accept his compliment.
‘So, by that logic, it’s okay to be horrible to ugly people, is it?’ I asked.
‘That’s not what I meant,’ he protested.
‘It’s what you said,’ I told him. I stared into his face with what I hoped was a concerned look. ‘If that’s what you think, then you can’t complain when I tell you that’s a really bad case of acne you’ve got, ginge!’
James laughed. ‘That’s me told,’ he admitted. ‘You’re right, sorry. I shouldn’t be horrible to anyone, unless they deserve it. And you didn’t. Will you ever forgive me?’
His eyes were bright and hopeful. Behind him, a middle-aged woman sitting diagonally opposite me had been shamelessly listening in to our conversation; she caught my eye and nodded.
‘I’ll think about it,’ I said, trying not to smile.
‘That’s a start,’ he said, sounding extremely pleased.
I sipped my tea and stared at him. We were sharing a pot of Darjeeling, which we’d agreed was of dubious quality. I said nothing.
‘What shall we do this afternoon, Annie?’ he asked.
‘What do you want to do?’ I said.
‘I’m happy simply enjoying your company,’ he said. Despite myself, I believed him. ‘How are your parents?’
As I began to tell him, he signalled the waitress for the bill. I was beginning to feel guilty about letting him pay, but James ignored my protests and handed over the cash.
We walked out from the city centre, past the Law Faculty offices, and out to the Botanical Gardens. We had almost reached the Gardens when I realised that he was carrying my sports bag for me. He must have picked it up when we’d finished our lunch. Despite my requests, he refused to hand it over.
‘I’ve carried it this far,’ he told me, and I can see the sign ahead. ‘What’s the point in me letting you carry it for the final few yards?’
‘It would make me feel better,’ I said.
‘Really?’ he asked. ‘Why not look on it as an additional punishment for me?’
I made a grab for the bag, but he moved it away, and I found myself dancing around him, chasing my stolen possessions in exactly the same way I’d done when I was little. I stopped, folded my arms, stuck out my bottom lip, and stamped my foot. They were the actions of a six-year-old Annie, and the effect on James was instant.
‘Sorry, Annie,’ he said. He held out the bag.
‘Changed my mind,’ I said with mock petulance. ‘You can carry it for me.’
We stared at each other. I’m certain that, like me, he was remembering the good times we’d shared. He burst out laughing, and so did I. As I thought back, I felt as if I’d already forgiven his actions on my eleventh birthday years earlier.
We were still laughing when we walked into the gardens, where we found a bench in the sunshine and talked and talked. We talked about his parents, and mine, and about our hopes for the future. The afternoon flew over, and we were still talking when a man came up and politely reminded us that the park was closing. I checked my watch. It was almost six. Where had the day gone?
‘I really should go home,’ I said.
‘Will you let me take you to dinner tonight?’ he asked. ‘I’ll take you somewhere nice. You’ll have to tell me where, of course.’
‘No,’ I said, despite the fact that I really wanted to say yes.
‘Why not?’ he demanded.
‘I’m not dressed for it,’ I said, grasping for an excuse.
‘You’re going home; you can get changed,’ he told me. ‘If, after today, you want me to leave you alone, you can simply tell me to eff off.’
‘I don’t want you to “eff off”, as you so politely put it,’ I said, giving in to the inevitable.
‘Great,’ he said. ‘So where are we dining tonight, Miss Charlton?’
‘Ms Charlton,’ I said, correcting him. ‘I know a really good little family run pizza place, Mr Potter.’
‘James,’ he said.
I sighed. ‘Okay, you can call me Anna,’ I told him.
‘I’d rather call you Annie,’ he said. ‘You’ll always be Annie to me. Shall I wait in the city centre for you, or…’ he tailed off hopefully.
‘This way,’ I said. We strolled up the hill towards my flat.
‘We could go swimming together,’ suggested James. ‘We could go to early morning training, just like when we were little. It would do us both good.’
‘Don’t be stupid, James. You live in London,’ I told him.
‘I’ll move,’ he said. ‘Have you got a spare room?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘I could share yours,’ he said.
‘James Potter! What sort of girl do you take me for?’ I asked.
‘A girl I want to get to know a lot better,’ he said.
‘You are an idiot,’ I said dismissively.
‘I can be that, too, if you want me to be,’ he said.
As we approached the flat, I saw movement in my bedroom window. That was when I noticed Simon’s car. He was parked directly outside my front door. James seemed to sense my sudden tension.
‘Problem?’ he asked.
‘That’s Simon’s car,’ I said. As I was pointing it out, the front door opened and Simon came out. He strode rapidly down the street to meet us.
‘What do you want me to do?’ asked James. ‘I can vanish if you want.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Just be yourself, James.’
I stared coolly at Simon as he approached. I felt nothing for him. He was pathetic. He was my past.
‘Anna, darling, we’ve been so worried,’ he began. ‘Vicki didn’t know where you’d gone, and you left your phone in the living room. Are you alright? Who is this?’ Simon looked nervous and worried, and extremely curious about James.
‘Me? James Potter,’ said James, he proffered a friendly hand, which Simon didn’t take. ‘I’m an old friend of Annie’s. I’ve known her since she was knee-high to a goblin, and I was once best mates with her big brother, Hennery. I accidentally met her outside the swimming pool. Twas just a huge co-inky-dink, honest.’
I snorted with laughter. I hadn’t heard James’ mispronunciation of the word “coincidence” for a long time, but it brought more memories flooding back.
‘We’ve been catching up on old times,’ explained James.
‘James, this is my ex-boyfriend, Simon Faversham,’ I said. Simon’s face fell. ‘James is taking me out for a meal tonight, Simon. We want to catch up. I’d be grateful if you could collect your stuff from my room. I’ll be round to get my things tomorrow.’
‘But…’ Simon tried.
James silenced him with a glance. ‘Best do it now, Simon,’ he suggested politely.
‘I hope that you’re very happy together,’ he snapped.
Simon glared at us, turned on his heels, and strode back to the house.
‘So do I,’ said James. He turned to face me, and gently placed his hands on my shoulders. ‘If this was a film, this would be the part where I kiss you for the first time,’ he added.
‘Unless it’s a tragedy, not a rom-com, in which case this is where I turn and walk away,’ I told him. I hadn’t showered properly, I suddenly realised. I’d spent the day with James Potter, but my hair was a mess, and I smelled of swimming pool.
‘I think it’s worth the risk,’ he said, sliding his arms down my back and bringing his lips close to mine.
My choice was simple: stop him; or throw my arms around him.
I didn’t stop him.
Back to index
Chapter 3: DreamingDreaming
It was just one kiss, I told myself as we parted. It was little more than a brushing of lips. I’d made certain of that, as I’d kept my teeth clamped tightly together. I didn’t want him to think that I was keen; even so, James was looking smug.
To show how little it actually meant to me, I made up some feeble reason why I could not to invite James into my flat. Unfortunately, he didn’t protest, but simply accepted my excuse. As I turned my back on him, I cursed silently. Now I wasn’t even sure how much the kiss had meant to him.
I dashed inside, swatted away Vicki’s questions, ignored Simon, and made my way through the flat to the bathroom. Simon had been waiting for me in my bedroom, but he pursued me to the bathroom. I simply ignored him, pushed him out, and locked the door.
I took a deep breath to steady my nerves, and looked in the mirror. One glance confirmed my fears. My hair was a mess and I smelled of swimming pool. In addition, I had just been kissed by James Potter, but that hadn’t left a mark, at least not on the outside.
I’d only done it to annoy Simon, and I’d succeeded. He was trying to talk to me through the bathroom door.
‘Let me explain,’ he began.
‘Just collect your stuff from my room and go!’ I shouted.
He started to protest, so I turned on the radio and turned up the volume. Thanks to Vicki, it was Radio 4, and the early-evening repeat of The Archers! But I didn’t bother to switch stations.
Pulling off my sweatshirt and ignoring the knocking on the door, I had a good wash. As I washed, I wondered how I would handle Simon. I’d been stupid! It would have been so much easier if I’d let James into the house.
No, I told myself, I would not rely on James; that would be an even bigger mistake.
Normally I would shower and change before going out, but Simon’s presence in the flat would make that difficult, I knew that I wasn’t ready for another fight with him. I was in tatty old clothes, and I wasn’t made up, but I was only going to a pizza place with an old friend (who I’d only kissed once, and it was only a little kiss). I didn’t need to be smart.
My decision made, I pulled on the sweatshirt, and didn’t even check myself in the mirror. It was only James, and with James there was no need to pretend.
Simon was waiting for me when I opened the door. ‘I thought I told you to collect your things from my room,’ I told him. ‘I’m going out, Simon, and you’d better not be here when I get back.’
Pushing my way past him, I ran through the flat and dashed downstairs. Simon followed, calling after me, but James was leaning on the wall just outside the door. My ex stopped his pursuit the moment James sprang to his feet.
‘Ready?’ James asked, ignoring Simon.
I nodded. ‘This way,’ I said.
I led him through a maze of streets to Ticino’s Pizzeria. We didn’t talk much, James tried, but I wasn’t in the mood so he fell silent and simply matched my stride. He didn’t pester me, and didn’t even mention my hasty exit from my flat, or the fact that I hadn’t changed my clothes.
I hadn’t been to the restaurant for a very long time, but ten minutes after we’d placed our order, James and I were spotted. It should not have surprised me, as the food was good, and inexpensive. That made it a very popular student haunt.
My friends Brad and Corinne arrived not long after we’d received our starters. I could see them staring in surprise at us. They hadn’t seen me in the place for some time, because the little family run pizzeria was rather downmarket for Simon. He preferred more exclusive places, or one of the large chains where the menu never changed.
They’d seen that I wasn’t with Simon, and I could see the curiosity on their faces. Realising that I’d have to deal with the gossip sometime, I beckoned my friends over and introduced them to James. As it was midweek, the place wasn’t busy. Between Brad and I we managed to persuade the waiter to reorganise the tables so that we could all sit together.
In my first year, like almost all freshers, I’d been placed in shared student accommodation in Endcliffe Village. Brad (whose name was actually David Pitt), Corinne, Vicki, Phil the medic, boy-Alex, girl-Alex, and George the mad vegetarian had been my randomly selected flatmates. Despite the randomness of our meeting, with the exception of boy-Alex (who’d dropped out after his first year) we’d all become–and remained–friends.
After introducing them to James, and explaining who he was,I told Brad and Corinne what had happened when I’d walked in on Simon. I was surprised to discover that, thanks to a flurry of texts from Vicki, and Simon’s online profile page, they already knew quite a lot. Simon had tried to put a positive spin on the events, but as Corinne acidly pointed out, it’s difficult to say “my girlfriend walked in when I was shagging another woman” and come out of it in a good light. Instead, apparently, in the past few minutes he’d begun an attempt at character assassination on me. I was surprised to discover what a nasty bitch I was.
To my astonishment, I found myself able to talk about the incident quite easily. Despite the fact that I’d only had the briefest of glimpses of her, I couldn’t stop myself from being catty about the girl’s appearance. By the end of the evening–as Brad, Corinne and I finished the litre carafe of house red (James stuck to orange juice)–she’d been turned into an ugly old harridan and had become the butt of many jokes.
Brad and Corinne were always good company. They had got together within months of our first meeting. We’d been eight fresh young students, all away from home for the first time, and we’d been forced together. From all the first-year relationships, they alone were still a couple two years later.
As we ate and talked, Brad–the evil sod–pulled out his phone and insisted on showing James some photographs of me from our first year. He even offered to forward a copy of one of the photos to James’s phone. James stared at the photo, grinned, but turned down the offer, telling Brad that he would wait until I offered to send it to him.
We’d gone to a “James Bond” themed party on campus. I’d lost a bet with girl-Alex and, as a consequence, I was Honey Ryder. The guys all wore tuxedoes, Brad had hired one with a white jacket, and he’d almost managed an old-fashioned “Daniel Craig” look. His hair had helped a lot. The other girls were all in evening wear, Corinne looking particularly gorgeous in a dress split to the thigh. However, because of the bet, I was in a white bikini with a wide leather belt and a cheap plastic knife. That was only two weeks after the eight of us had first met. It was also the night Brad and Corinne got together (though they denied it for weeks) and it was the night I spent being jealously guarded by George, bless him.
By the end of the meal James knew rather more about my university exploits than I’d have liked, and he certainly knew more than Mum and Dad. When we finished, Brad and Corinne asked us to join them at the pub. I considered it, but when James politely declined, I decided against more booze. Instead, I allowed James to once again walk me back to my flat. En route I texted Vicki: Simon still there?
She replied immediately: Long gone. Where are you? You okay?
Fine. On my way. I replied.
It was only a little after nine in the evening, but I was stifling a yawn when James halted in front of my door for the second time that day. I was full of pizza capricciosa, and feeling a little light-headed. As we’d walked through the streets, James had been full of praise for his calzone, and for my choice of restaurants.
‘Thank you,’ I said as we stood outside my front door. I expected him to try to kiss me, but he didn’t.
‘I’ve had a great day,’ he told me sincerely. ‘But I really should be going. I was supposed to meet Rosie eight hours ago,’ he told me. ‘And eight hours is a lateness record, even for me. I really should call on her before it gets too late, even if it’s only to apologise.’
He tried to look remorseful, but failed.
‘You should have abandoned me to my fate, instead,’ I said.
James shook his head firmly. ‘I can see Rosie anytime, but I haven’t seen you in years. Thanks for a great day. That was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had. Brad and Corinne seem like a nice couple, too.’ He reached forwards and gently brushed my cheek with his fingers. ‘I’ve…’ He hesitated, and looked into my face, an anxious look in his hazel eyes. His next, nervous, words tumbled out with surprising speed. ‘I’ve enjoyed catching up with you, and as I said I’ve had a really great day. Can I see you again tomorrow?’
I was about to say yes, but a sudden feeling that I was being watched made me glance upwards. I could see a curtain twitching in the window above the front door. My flatmate was watching me.
The sight of Vicki’s face brought me back down to earth with a bump. I’d spent an entire day, or at least more than ten hours, with James Potter, and it had been wonderful. Nevertheless, I sternly reminded myself that I was still emotional, and very tired. My sensible side struggled to make its voice heard: you need time to think, time to take stock, it reminded me. For once, I listened to it.
‘Not tomorrow,’ I told him firmly. ‘I’ve got a lot to do.’
His face crumpled into despondency, and I took pity on him.
‘Saturday,’ I suggested, ‘if that’s okay with you. I just need some time to sort stuff out, okay?’
‘What time on Saturday, and where?’ he asked.
I shrugged. I hadn’t given any thought to the when; I’d simply wanted to say yes. ‘Some time in the afternoon,’ I suggested, pushing any thought of meeting him in the morning to the back of my mind and continuing my attempt to play it cool, to appear ambiguous and aloof.
‘Five past twelve. That’s after noon,’ he said promptly, betraying a keenness which I didn’t expect, but which made my heart do somersaults.
I tried to hide my elation. ‘Okay,’ I told him.
‘I … er … I own an old motorbike,’ he said cautiously. ‘We could go for a ride somewhere, if…’
‘Only if you have a spare helmet,’ I told him, as my heart skipped. ‘Mine is at home.’
‘You have your own helmet?’ he asked, attempting to outgrin the Cheshire cat. ‘Wow! That’s great. Can you ... do you ride a bike?’
‘I’ve passed my test,’ I said. ‘But I don’t like the electric bikes, and I couldn’t afford petrol, and anyway I can walk wherever I need to go.’
‘Perfect, yeah, er, great, excellent. Saturday, after noon, I won’t forget,’ he promised, bouncing excitedly on his toes. ‘I’ll just come here, okay?’
‘Yeah, that’ll be great. D’you want my mobile number?’ I asked. As I spoke, my mind flew back to the only call he’d made all day. ‘That reminds me, what sort of phone do you have? It looked weird, more like a wood-framed mirror than a smartphone. You could give me your number too, just in case something crops up.’
For some reason my request worried him. ‘Saturday,’ he said evasively. ‘I’ll give you my number on Saturday.’
I was about to protest, but he grabbed my waist and pulled me in for a kiss so passionate that it dispelled any worries I had. Any treacherous thoughts about his reluctance to provide me with his number, or the whirlwind of a day I’d had, fled from my brain. It was much too busy processing the sensation of being in his arms.
When he finally released me, we were both panting. The kiss had almost silenced my sensible side, and I was very tempted to invite him into the flat. A small, but rapidly increasing part of my mind wanted to ask him to stay for the night. It was probably fortunate that, before I could catch enough breath to speak, he turned and strode off down the street. He gave me a cheery wave, and called, ‘See you Saturday, Annabel-Anna-Annie.’
I had barely managed to gasp, ‘Bye, James,’ before he had walked swiftly down the street, turned onto the main road, and disappeared from sight.
As I looked at the corner where he’d vanished, my mind began to spin. In the space of little more than twenty-four hours, my world had changed. As I stared down the street I realised that I still knew next to nothing about James. He knew where I lived, and what I was doing at University. What did I know? I could probably find his cousin Rosie, but apart from that–I had no address, no phone number, nothing. If he didn’t arrive on Saturday, I might never see him again.
That thought alarmed me much more than it should have.
I was still staring anxiously after him, wondering whether to give chase, when my front door opened, and Vicki peered out at me.
‘Who was that?’ she asked.
‘That was James Sirius Potter,’ I told her.
‘Sirius?’ she queried. ‘What sort of a name is Sirius?’
‘His brother is called Albus,’ I said, ‘Albus S-s-something, I don’t think I ever found out what his “S” stood for. And their sister is Lily Luna; the Luna is because she’s named after a lunatic — luna-tic, get it? Are you okay, Vicki? You look worried.’
‘Simon was been back, about an hour ago, while you and …James… were out,’ she told me. My flatmate was unable to look me in the eyes, so was staring at my knees as she spoke. ‘He’s gone again, but he arrived with a big black bin-bag. He said… He said that it’s got all your stuff in it, and that there is no need for you to call at his place to collect anything.’
I shrugged. I’d left some clothes and some of my course notes at Simon’s house, if he’d delivered them to me, then I wouldn’t need to see him until our third-year lectures started in four weeks time.
‘What else did he say?’ I asked.
‘He called you… He called you some very rude names, and he wasn’t very complimentary about James, either.’
‘What, exactly did he call James and me?’ I asked.
Vicki’s head drooped even lower, and her voice dropped to a whisper. ‘He said that James was a smarmy chancer who was…’ she lowered her voice, ‘trying to get into your knickers.’
‘I’d probably have let him, if he’d tried,’ I said, surprising both Vicki and myself with my confession. ‘What about me?’
‘He, er, he called you a two-timing slut,’ she told my feet.
I laughed, alarming Vicki, and startling myself. My laughter caused her to raise her head and I saw the anxiety on her face. She thought that I was about to have hysterics again, but I was surprisingly untroubled by what she’d told me.
‘That remark simply shows what a two-faced bastard he is,’ I said. ‘Fucking hell, Vicki, twenty-four hours ago I walked in on slimy Simon–the man I’ve been with for more than a year–shagging another girl. This morning, I met… I met an idiot I hadn’t seen since I was eleven, and he was nice enough to let me take my anger out on him. And he listened to me ranting and swearing and complaining about my two-timing twat of an ex-boyfriend. Okay, I gave James a kiss or two, but I haven’t done more than that. But even if I had, Simon did it first.’ I stopped, because I realised that my protestations were unnecessary, and beginning to sound like self-justification.
Vicki was watching me closely, and a little suspiciously. ‘You seem a lot happier and more relaxed than you were when you left this morning,’ she told me. ‘I’m really glad, Anna, because I was worried about you. If you haven’t… I mean, what on earth have you and this James Potter character been doing?’
‘Talking, and listening,’ I said. I grinned as Vicki continued to look sceptical. ‘I haven’t spent the day in a hotel room with him, if that’s what Simon has been insinuating,’ I sighed, yawned and stretched. ‘Fuck knows what he’ll tell people, but at the moment I don’t care. I think I need a cuppa.’
‘Shall I put the kettle on?’ Vicki asked. ‘I’m quite capable of filling it with fresh water. Or would you rather I left even that job to you?’
‘You can put the kettle on while I nip to the loo, Vicki,’ I said. ‘But I’ll make the tea. It’s time for a Ceylon Orange Pekoe, I think. Would you care to join me?’
‘Yes, please,’ she said. ‘Do you want to talk?’
‘I think that I do, yes,’ I told her as I followed her upstairs into our flat. ‘I should really tell somebody my version of events.’ We walked through the flower-festooned living room and into the kitchen. I left her running the tap, as I headed for the bathroom.
By the time I’d finished my ablutions, the kettle was approaching its second boiling.
‘I’ve rinsed the pot once already, and it’s full of boiling water,’ said Vicki nervously. She knows how precious I am about my tea. She’d pulled out the correct caddy, and set two fine china mugs on the tray, too.
‘Thanks, Vicki,’ I said. ‘Perfect, in fact.’
As I emptied the pot, prised open the caddy, and carefully measured out the aromatic leaves, I gave Vicki a weary, but grateful smile. I had just scooped the leaves into the pot when the kettle boiled. Pouring the water over the leaves, I inhaled the aroma and placed the lid on the pot. As I picked up the tray, Vicki moved ahead of me and opened the door to our living room. The room was not large, and it was made smaller by the fact that every flat surface was covered in flowers.
‘It seemed a shame to let them go to waste,’ Vicki told me. ‘But I’ll throw them out if you want.’
I shook my head. My flatmate had obviously been very busy with the enormous bouquet Simon had sent me that morning.
‘No need for that. The flowers simply show what a fucking smarmy twat he is,’ I said. ‘What did he think would happen?’ I lowered my voice and tried to mimic Simon’s southern accent. ‘My girlfriend arrived back a day early and caught me in flagrante delicto–I know what I’ll do–I’ll buy her flowers, and she’ll forgive me and everything will be okay again.’ I returned to my normal voice. ‘He’s a total wanker. But they are nice flowers, and I like the new vases. Good work, Vicki.’
We owned two vases, and the sheer number of flowers Simon had sent me was enough for–I counted up the make-shift vases–nine. It seemed that Vicki had used every receptacle she could find. There was a red coffee mug whose handle had broken off a few days before I’d gone home; an empty instant coffee jar; and various cook-in-sauce jars which she must have rescued from our glass-recycling bin.
‘Thanks, Anna,’ said Vicki, smiling. ‘I wasn’t sure whether you’d want me to keep them, or throw them out. When you stormed off this morning…’
‘This morning I was still pissed off with Simon, and I hardly slept last night,’ I said. I yawned again; my sleepless night and long day was finally catching up with me. ‘Now, I don’t give a shit about the tosser. But I’ll keep his flowers.’
‘You really shouldn’t swear so much, Anna,’ Vicki told me.
‘You’re probably right,’ I admitted, taking a sip of scalding hot tea. ‘James doesn’t like it, either.’
‘Who is he?’ Vicki asked. ‘You said you hadn’t seen him since you were eleven. Where did you meet, and how did you recognise him?’
‘Recognising him was easy, he’s a few years older than me, he’d have been thirteen or fourteen the last time I saw him,’ I said. ‘He hasn’t changed much, not really. He’s a lot like he was the last time I saw him: good-looking, quick-witted, not quite ginger, with nice eyes and an inflated sense of his own importance.’
‘Oh,’ said Vicki. ‘That’s not good, Anna. Except for the ginger, it’s the way you described…’
‘Simon! Shit, it is, isn’t it?’ I said, annoyed with myself for not realising. ‘I was going to tell you that he’s nothing like Simon. But I’m wrong. Crap, damn, shit and buggeration.’
I looked uneasily at my friend, suddenly uncertain about what I was doing. James had suddenly re-entered my life, and he had taken up my entire day. He’d cheered me up when I was down. But as I again remembered the horrible trick he’d played on me on my eleventh birthday, my anxiety grew. He had been such an annoying boy.
‘So much for not swearing,’ said Vicki, quietly rebuking me. ‘Do you want to talk about James, about today? When did you first meet him?’
‘When? A very long time ago, so long ago that I can’t remember much about it,’ I admitted. ‘Which is hardly surprising, I was probably only two or three when we first met. We grew up together.’ I smiled at the memories.
‘You don’t have to tell me,’ said Vicki with blatant insincerity. It was obvious that she was desperate to know more.
‘Once upon a time,’ I began in a sing-song voice. ‘In the tiny village of Alwinton, in upper Coquetdale, in the far north of England, there lived a little girl called Annabel May Charlton. Everybody called her Annie, and she had a brother named Henry Michael, who everybody called Hen.’
‘I’ve met your big brother, remember,’ said Vicki. ‘He collected you from C7 in our first year. At Christmas.’
‘Oh, yeah,’ I said, returning to my normal voice, ‘I forgot, sorry.’ I smiled at my friend, and continued.
‘Henry started First School in the September just before his fifth birthday. It was a small rural school, and there was only one other new starter, another boy. The other boy was called James Potter. Henry and James hit it off straight away, at least that’s what Mum and Dad always told me. And Mum and Dad became friends with Mr and Mrs Potter. Mum and Ginny–that’s Mrs Potter–were very close, and Mum and I were regular visitors to Drakeshaugh–that’s the house where the Potters lived.
‘James had–has–a brother and sister. Al was in the year above me at school, and Lily was in the year below me. Lintzgarth–my parents’ house–is great, but the Potters’ house was better. It was big and rambling, and stood in about twenty acres of land. It was a wonderful place for kids, and we were a gang.’ I closed my eyes and lost myself in the memories.
‘We had some great times. We played in Drakeshaugh Wood, and paddled in Drakestone Burn. We–it sounds stupid, I know–but, it was an idyllic childhood,’ I said wistfully. ‘We were pirates, we were explorers, we were witches and wizards, we fought dragons; we did all sorts of things in the house and grounds. And we went swimming almost every Saturday, and we even went to swimming competitions when we got older. Henry and James were always getting me, Al and Lily into trouble.
‘The Potters’ cousins were often there too. There were loads of cousins, but Rosie and Hugo were the ones who visited most often. They lived way down south, but they were always there in the holidays, and they were in the gang too.’
‘You know I was a bit iffy with you when we first met in the Endcliffe flat? That’s because you introduced yourself as Vicki, and the only Vicki I’d ever met was one of the Potter cousins. She was Victoire, actually–she had a French mother–and she was always “tres chic”. Even at eleven, I didn’t like her,’ I smiled an apology to Vicki, closed my eyes, and once again lost myself in memories. ‘In the summer we’d climb trees and build dams, in the winter we’d sledge and build snowmen, and we had some amazing times. Once, I even met Santa.’
‘What?’ Vicki asked.
I struggled to open my eyes. ‘I swear, Vicki. It happened when I was four or five. I was in the Potter’s living room and this man came down the chimney and stepped out of the fireplace. It’s one of my earliest memories. I can still remember it clearly. Of course, I was certain that he was Santa. I’ve no idea what I really saw. My brother tells me that I made the whole thing up, but I didn’t. The man I saw was definitely real, because I saw him several more times over the years. He was enormous; I think he was called Haggard, or something like that. Drakeshaugh was that sort of place, it seemed almost magical. We had secret hide-outs and swings and…’
Vicki was interested, but I realised that I could tell tales of my childhood for hours, and my blinks were becoming longer. I stopped, drank more tea, and thought about what I was trying to tell her.
‘And we grew up,’ I said sadly, stifling another yawn. ‘I suppose I’d always known that the Potters had more money than we did. Mum and Dad aren’t poor, but we certainly didn’t own a second property in Islington, and my parents definitely couldn’t afford the fees to send us to a private school. But when James was eleven–actually he was almost twelve–he didn’t go back to Middle School after the summer holidays. Instead, his parents sent him off to a posh school. It was somewhere in Scotland. The year after that, James’s brother Al went, too. There was only Lily left, and my brother had to make new friends.
‘The Potters were always back during the summer holidays, but it wasn’t the same, and when James pulled a really cruel practical joke on me on my eleventh birthday, that was that, at least I think it was. I still saw Lily at school and I was still sort-of-friends with her, but only sort-of, because I knew she’d be going away to school, too. So we sort of drifted apart.’
‘Why was he here?’ Vicki asked. ‘What was he doing in Sheffield?’
‘His cousin is here, she’s at Uni,’ I yawned again. ‘You might even know her, Vicki. She’s a numbers geek like you. She’s only just arrived. She’s starting a PhD in Maths.’
‘So she’ll probably have moved into Ranmoor last weekend. What’s her name?’ Vicki asked.
‘Rosie something…’ I yawned again. ‘It was a weird surname, no, not weird–weirdly, no Weasley, that’s it, Rosie Granger-Weasley.’
While I’d been talking, Vicki had begun to tap and swipe her way through various pages on her tablet. There was a gleam in her eye.
‘This is her, isn’t it?’ Vicki asked. She turned the tablet around, and displayed a photograph. There were two people in the foreground. One was a skinny middle-aged man who wore what must once have been an expensive suit; it was unfashionable, crumpled, and two sizes too big for him. He was shaking hands with a tall and gangly girl with a long straight nose and short-cropped bright ginger hair. In the background, four other students looked on.
‘That’s her,’ I said, blinking and rubbing my eyes as I peered at the picture. ‘Unless that guy is really short, Rosie is taller than me, and I’m no midget.’ I thought back to the several parties I’d attended as a child. ‘Her dad was tall and thin and he had the same colour hair. She’s got his nose, too. How did you know? Where did you get the photo?’
‘It’s from the S.U.M.S. webpage,’ said Vicki. It took my sleepy brain a few minutes to remember that S.U.M.S. stood for Sheffield University Mathematics Society. ‘She’s the newest member of Professor von Seidel’s Quantum String Group,’ said Vicki. She sounded very impressed. ‘Everyone calls them “The Impossibles”; they’re some of the cleverest mathematicians in the country. They’re working with the Theoretical Physicists from the Sir Brian Cox Building on something to do with string theory, imaginary, unreal, and impossible numbers. It’s well beyond my statistical brain; it’s cutting edge theoretical maths, all about…’
The summer sun was at its zenith, and it blazed down on us with an almost tropical intensity. The birds where chirruping in the trees as we dashed out of Drakeshaugh. We were all in shorts and t-shirts and only one thing lay between us and the woods. It was big and black and shining.
‘D’you wanna sit on it, Henry?’ asked James. My brother warily shook his head. Al and Lily looked nervously at each other, wondering if they dared.
‘I do,’ I said. I dashed towards the bike, put my foot on the peg, and swung my leg over the saddle. James’s dad’s bike was huge, and once I was astride the seat my feet simply dangled either side of the engine. The bike had been in the sun for hours, and the black saddle was so hot that it was burning my legs. I forced myself to ignore my discomfort. I didn’t want my friends to think that I was a sissy. I leaned forwards and, with arms outstretched, I grabbed the handlebars. ‘Vroom, vroom,’ I said, twisting the throttle.
‘It can fly, too,’ James boasted.
‘Don’t be silly,’ I told him. ‘Motorbikes can’t fly.’
‘This one can,’ James said. ‘It’s…’
‘James Potter,’ James’s mum shouted across the yard at him. ‘How many times have I told you? If you keep this up, we will have to stop Henry and Annie from coming here.’
‘Sorry, Mum, sorry Annie,’ James said. ‘I’m just being silly. Let’s go into the woods an’ play.’
Everyone dashed off, and I struggled to dismount from the bike. By the time I reached the edge of the trees, the others had vanished, and the ground was covered in snow. I was wearing red polka-dot wellies and a bright red duffel coat.
When I reached the big glade, where the rope swing was, the others were building a snowman. At some point Rosie and her little brother had arrived too. It was an enormous snowman and we soon used up almost all of the snow in the clearing, but James had an idea.
Despite Al and Rosie’s protests, he clambered up the yew tree and out onto a branch. Once there, he began to bounce on it. He was about thirty feet in the air, and the snow fell from the boughs, bringing most of the snow from the lower branches with it and creating a huge pile on the ground. Unfortunately, he also brought down snow from above, and it knocked him from his precarious perch. As I saw him fall, I squealed. But he seemed to slow down, and he floated to the ground no faster than a snowflake.
‘Wha’ happened,’ the giant asked as he dashed into the clearing. His name, I remembered, wasn’t Haggard, it was Hagrid. He wasn’t as tall as a double-decker bus. He wasn’t as wide as a bus, either, because that would be impossible, wouldn’t it?
‘James fell out of the tree,’ said Rosie.
‘But I’m okay,’ said James. ‘I, er, I must’ve landed in the deep snow. That was lucky, wasn’t it?’
‘Yer fine, I reckon,’ Hagrid said, brushing the snow from James’s back with a hand bigger than a snow shovel. ‘Time ter go inside, kids. Food’s ready, a real Halloween Feast. Follow me.’
As he turned and led the way back through the woods, I scrambled to my feet and brushed the autumn leaves from my black duffel coat. Hagrid was holding two wooden poles, one in each hand. Dangling from a string at the end of the poles were the biggest pumpkins I’d ever seen. Both had a carefully carved face on them, and they glowed orange. There was an almost impossibly bright candle inside each of them. We chattered and laughed as we followed the dancing pumpkins through the trees and back to Drakeshaugh and a “sumpters feast”, as James and Henry called it.
The Potters’ Halloween parties were always wonderful, great food and amazing fireworks were guaranteed. I was offered hot chocolate or pumpkin juice, something which only the Potters drank. I rejected both, and asked for tea instead. We were in the massive living room, and I stared into the faces of the pumpkins, which were now swinging from the ceiling. Flickering shadows did a shimmy around the walls as the pumpkins swayed in time to the music.
‘D’you have to go to that school?’ I asked Lily. ‘What’s it called?’
‘Yeah, I do, sorry. Bye, Annie,’ said Lily sadly. She clambered onto the back of a giant red warthog and sat behind her brothers. ‘I’m going to school.’
I tried to grab the warthog’s tail, but I missed, and fell to the floor.
I woke with a start, and the feeling that I was falling.
Completely disorientated by a dream which had consisted of muddled and part-remembered memories from my childhood, I cautiously opened my eyes. The room was in darkness and I could see very little. My neck was stiff and sore, and my arms and legs were aching so much I could hardly move. I’d been swimming, and walking, I remembered. I had punished my body. I was, however, warm; I was very warm. Vicki had wrapped me in my duvet. I pushed it to the floor, staggered over to the doorway, and searched for the light switch.
As I blinked in the unfamiliar light, I looked around the room and tried to remember what had happened. The wall clock told me that it was almost four in the morning. I’d fallen asleep on the sofa, whilst talking to Vicki. She’d taken away the mugs and teapot. I checked the kitchen, and discovered that she’d rinsed the pot and washed the mugs.
I yawned again. I’d had virtually no sleep the night before, and I was still absolutely bloody knackered. Grabbing my duvet from the floor, I stumbled and staggered through the hall to my bedroom. Despite the fact that I was barely awake, I spotted the slip of white paper on the doormat. Curious, I staggered downstairs and picked it up, hoping that it wasn’t from Simon.
It wasn’t; it was from James. With bleary eyes, I read it.
Annie, I should have given you this when you asked. Sorry. Just in case you need it, or need me before Saturday, here’s my number: 52637 768837. I know that it doesn’t look like any number you’ve seen, but it’s correct believe me. Thanks again for a great day. See you soon.
‘James, kiss,’ I said sleepily to myself as I entered my bedroom. After pulling my vest and shorts from under my pillow, I pushed the note into the same spot. I undressed, pulled on my nightwear, and collapsed into bed, dragging my duvet with me.
Epic day, Annie, I thought to myself as I shuffled into a comfortable position. Annie the name, like James, was a part of my past. I had not thought of myself as Annie for years. I’d been Anna since I’d gone to High School but now, because of James, I was Annie again.
Back to index
Chapter 4: FriendshipFriendship
‘I have paper, and a pen,’ Rose told us.
‘Of course you do,’ said James. ‘So you can be club secretary, Rosie.’
‘We need a name,’ Henry reminded everyone
‘The Drakestone Seven,’ said Lily promptly.
‘Great,’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ agreed Al and Hugo.
I woke late, very late, and rather confused. The dream left me trying to capture some of the ephemeral glimpses of my childhood that had pushed their way to the front of my sleeping mind, but they vanished from my memory like mist in the morning sun. When I opened my eyes, I was oddly disappointed to discover that I was in Sheffield, and not back home in Coquetdale.
When I switched on my phone, I discovered I had dozens of unread messages. My friends, some friends-of-friends, and a few people I barely knew had sent me texts or emails. I took my phone into the kitchen and, as I made my breakfast, I skimmed through the messages. It didn’t take me long to realise that no matter what the words said, or whether they were verbose, curt, inquisitive or polite, they could be distilled down into four simple questions.
Have you and Simon really split up?
Did you really walk in on him shagging somebody else?
Who was that bloke you were out with last night?
The fourth question was a little more complicated. Sometimes it was: do you need someone to talk to? Often it was: are you okay? However, the cynical part of my brain took over and boiled it down to a demand: tell me everything!
After I’d made myself a pot of Ceylon Orange Pekoe and poured yoghurt onto my muesli, I switched on my tablet and updated my social page. It didn’t take me long. I changed my relationship status to single, deleted the profile picture of me with Simon, and posted a short entry.
A couple of days ago I walked in on my (now ex-)boyfriend while he was busy banging someone else. If you want to know who she was ask him! I don’t know her name, and I don’t care. It wasn’t a moment for formal introductions and, besides, I was too busy being emotional. I have since discovered that this wasn’t the first time he’s played away from home.
Conclusion: I can’t trust Simon Faversham, and neither can you.
Coincidentally, (I first typed co-inky-dinkily, smiled to myself, and then started again and spelt the word correctly) while I was in the city centre trying to clear my head, I met someone I grew up with. His name is James, we went to the same primary school, and he was in the same class as my brother. He spent the day listening to me rant, for which I’m grateful. So, was I with a strange man yesterday? Yes.
If you want to know anything else, ask me to my face. I may not tell you to fuck off, but I probably will.
I flicked quickly through my photo album, and eventually selected my new profile picture. It was an old photograph of the Drakestone at sunset. Having successfully reset my online life, I returned to the real world, and decided that I desperately needed a shower.
Later, as I dried myself and got dressed, I resolved that I would spend the day working on my dissertation. It was something I had been neglecting. As I sat in my room and sorted through my work, I realised that I’d actually spent more time helping Simon with his own dissertation than I had working on my own.
I had just unfolded my keyboard and settled down to work when Vicki knocked on my door. She offered to make me lunch. It was only an hour after I’d eaten breakfast, but I could tell that she wanted to fuss over me. I gave in and joined her in the kitchen for a plate of pitta, hummus, Somerset goat’s cheese and shredded beetroot. After we’d eaten, I told her I intended to work all day, and gave strict instructions that I wasn’t to be disturbed.
Vicki did her best, turning away a couple of curious visitors. Thanks to her efforts, I managed six uninterrupted hours of work. But at a little before seven o’clock, Brad, Corinne, Phil, George and Alex called round to make sure I was okay. There was no way Vicki could have kept our old flatmates out. She apologised as they dragged me from my bedroom, but I assured her that I wasn’t angry. The unbreakable bond of the first-year flat we’d shared meant that the seven of us who remained in Sheffield expected, and got, unrestricted access to each other’s flats.
It was Thursday, and someone–I think it was George–suggested that we have a proper Thursday meal. Even if I’d wanted to object, I would have been overruled so, for the first time since I’d started going out with Simon, we shared a takeaway curry feast.
Corinne phoned the New Bengal Tandoori–the only curry-house in the area whose meals were acceptable to Vicki–and ordered a set meal for five. Experience had shown us that a meal for five was more than enough for the seven of us seven–it’s a lucky number–a special number. While Corinne was on the phone, Brad dashed over the road to the off-licence and bought a dozen six-sixty mil bottles of Cobra.
Phil, meanwhile, was raiding Vicki’s online movie collection. We, or rather Phil and Alex–who always ended up making the choice–settled on a bizarre Korean sci-fi horror rom-com called Fixed Point. By the time our curry arrived, we were clustered around the telly, and ready for a very silly night.
It was about half-past nine when the movie finally ended. By then, the meal was no more than a pile of empty cartons, dirty plates, and poppadom crumbs. Phil, Vicki, and George were having a good-natured argument about the merits of the movie. Personally, I didn’t think it had any.
Brad had drained the dregs from the last bottle of lager, so he volunteered to go and buy more booze. He tried to drum up support from the others, but I didn’t want any, and not even Corinne would back him up. Instead, I offered to make us all tea, a suggestion which was greeted by cheers from my friends.
‘We’ve missed your tea, Anna,’ Alex told me.
Before I could reply, my phone rang. The ringtone was “Lads of Alnwick”, but I couldn’t remember who I’d assigned it too. I had to look at the display to see who was calling. I was so surprised that I answered it.
‘What the hell do you want?’ I asked harshly. The crowded living room instantly went from cheerful and chattering to silent.
Vicki worriedly mouthed “Simon?” at me. I shook my head.
‘You’ve got no manners at all, Anna,’ the voice said. ‘We’re flesh and blood, together through thick and thin. It’s my job to look after you, remember?’
‘You’re doing a shite job of it, Henry,’ I told him.
My friends were still sitting silently in the living room, wondering what was happening, and who was on the phone.
While Henry spoke to me, Vicki provided an explanation to the others. ‘Henry is Anna’s brother,’ Vicki told them. ‘That first Christmas, when we were all in C7, he turned up on Christmas Eve to collect her. You’d all gone. Apart from Anna, I was the only one there.’ While Vicki explained, I listened to my brother.
‘Mum’s worried about you,’ he said. ‘She asked me to check your social media, because although you’ve banned her, you forgot to ban me. She wanted me to make sure that you were okay. So I did. Great picture of the Drakestone, sis. As for your status…’
‘Fucking Hell,’ I said, regretting the words I’d so recently typed. My brother sighed.
‘I work in a garage, Anna. Do you know that you swear more than most of the blokes I work with? And they’re all scruffy, oily, Geordie mechanics! You don’t swear more than Mickey, of course. He pulled out an old starter motor yesterday and said “this fucking fucker’s fucking fucked.” A five word sentence and four of them were the same word. I hope you’re impressed by that, because I was. Perhaps I should introduce you to him. You can compare the size of your profanities.’
My brother paused for breath, but I didn’t interrupt him, because I knew exactly what was coming.
‘So, James Potter is in Sheffield, and you spent the day with him. The parents don’t know, do they?’
‘No they fu... No they don’t! And you’re not going to tell them,’ I said.
‘Fair enough,’ he said evenly. ‘I won’t. So, how are you? Sounds like you had a rough time. Do you want me to come down and twat Simon one?’
‘I’m okay. Better than I thought I’d be. And no, Henry, I don’t want you to twat Simon one.’
‘Don’t tell me!’ Henry announced hopefully. ‘James has already twatted Simon.’
‘No, unlike you, James doesn’t feel the need to be violent towards people.’
‘Then he’s not the James I remember,’ said Henry. I could hear the suppressed laughter in his voice. ‘You know I’m all talk, Anna. I’ve never actually hit anyone, except on the rugby pitch. But if I was ever going to thump somebody, Simon would be top of my list. At Mum’s party, he made a snide crack about Mum’s accent, and he knew I would hear. I’d have thumped him then, except I knew he was winding me up, and besides, everybody would have been down on me like a ton of bricks. And the smarmy git knew it.’
‘Violence is never the answer,’ I told him.
‘Spoken like a human rights lawyer,’ he said, laughing. ‘I’m proud of you Anna.’
‘Are you drunk?’ I asked suspiciously.
‘No, just thought you might need some brotherly love and support. Apparently not, but you were a stubborn and self-reliant little sod from the start. Nobody ever told you that you’re supposed to look up to big brothers, not stand up to them.’
‘Too bloody true,’ I said, laughing.
‘So, how’s James?’ he asked.
‘As mad as ever,’ I told him. ‘He cheered me up, made me laugh. He asked how you were doing, so I told him.’
‘Only the good things, I hope,’ said Henry. ‘Blast from the past, eh? Did you talk about the old gang?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He was here to visit one of them; someone who’s doing a PhD in Maths.’
‘That has to be Rosie,’ Henry told me promptly. ‘It can’t be anyone else. Have you met her, too? What about Al, and Lily, and Hugo?’
I looked around the still quiet room. Phil was getting his coat, Alex and George were clearing the dirty plates away, and Vicki, Brad and Corinne were clearing up the cartons and bottles. Even so, they were all listening.
‘No, I haven’t met Rosie. Not yet, anyway. I’ve got a house full of people, Hen. My friends from first year are all here, so I can’t really gossip now,’ I told him.
‘Friends, good,’ said Henry approvingly. ‘Sorry for interrupting. I’m surprised you answered. How’s the only one I’ve met, the speccy little Maths geek, the Vicki who definitely isn’t a snooty Victoire? Is she looking after you?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Good. I know what you’re like; you don’t like to be miserable, so you bypass misery and go for angry instead. Don’t be too hard on her,’ he ordered. ‘I’ll let you go and talk to your friends, little Annie. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. If you see Jamie again, tell him that I was asking after him. And don’t forget to talk to Mum.’
‘I won’t,’ I promised.
‘Ye can gi’ us a ring an’ all, ye knaa,’ he added, suddenly lapsing into the vernacular. ‘You stopped talking to me; it wasn’t the other way round. If you ever need a big brother, just call, okay? Gan canny, kidda.’
With that, Henry was gone.
‘That was my suddenly protective big brother,’ I told my friends as I pushed my phone back into my pocket.
‘Henry,’ said Vicki, nodding knowledgeably. ‘Is he coming down to see you?’
‘He’s the only brother I have,’ I confirmed. ‘No, he’s not going to visit. He was just checking up on me. Making sure I’m okay, and threatening to thump Simon.’
‘Trying to protect you,’ said Vicki. To my surprise, she sounded almost approving.
‘Threatening violence on someone,’ I said disapprovingly. Brad and Phil laughed, and pulled their “Anna’s on her high horse again” faces at me. Phil shrugged on his coat.
‘Got to go, sorry, Anna,’ Phil said. ‘I start work in half an hour. Night shift in A&E. That will be fun.’
‘Who’d be a medical student?’ I asked as I stood to say goodbye to him.
‘Me,’ he said cheerfully. He gave me a powerful hug. ‘Good to have you back, Anna,’ he told me. ‘Bye all.’ He thundered down the stairs to the front door to the sound of everyone’s cheerful goodbyes.
After we’d tidied up the living room and done the dishes, I made us all some tea and we chatted until after eleven. My friends asked a lot of questions, mostly about James. I told them the truth; he was my brother’s friend, someone I had known when I was a little girl, and we’d simply met by coincidence.
‘Good story,’ Corinne told me. ‘He’s funny, eminently shag-worthy, and I think he really fancies you. And I reckon you fancy him too, Anna. There’s certainly a connection between you.’
I protested so strenuously that Corinne began to tease me. Brad, Alex and George joined in, and before long we were trading good-natured insults.
It wasn’t late but, despite the company, I was starting to fall asleep. With unusual firmness, Vicki chased everyone away. As my friends left, I got hugs from them all.
Buoyed by all the attention, I even hugged Vicki. ‘We should do this again,’ I said. She looked at me as though I was mad.
‘We do,’ she reminded me, ‘every month. Phil’s boyfriend never complains about him socialising with his old friends, and neither does Alex’s. You’re the only one who doesn’t turn up.’
‘Fucking Simon,’ I said. ‘How did I let that happen?’
Vicki gave me a sad shrug, and shook her head regretfully. I hugged her again.
‘I wanted to tell you about... about the other girl, but I’d promised. And anyway, at the time you and Simon were so… Well, I wasn’t sure that you’d have believed me,’ she said. ‘Sorry.’
I wasn’t sure that you’d have believed me.
Her honest, apprehensive, words were the alarm clock which finally woke me from the Simon nightmare. I worried that it was true. Even if I had believed Vicki, I realised, he could probably have talked me round. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I might still be with him.
‘I’m sorry, too, Vicki. I truly am! But I’m knackered, and I’m going to bed. Thanks for looking out for me. I now know who my friends are. I won’t forget again.’
I was paddling in Drakestone Burn when there was a sudden loud bang. James’ Uncle George had appeared out of thin air, only yards in front of me. I shrieked. He’d always been good at magic; his card tricks were amazing but, for some reason, no matter how much he reassured me that what I’d seen was simply another trick, I hadn’t believed him. I somehow knew that it was real magic.
Suddenly, I was next to the Drakestone itself.
‘We’ve all made a solemn swear,’ said James.
‘In blood,’ Henry added.
James carefully folded the paper and placed it inside the Tupperware box. We then pushed the box into the gap in the rocks. Al and I pushed soil on top to bury it.
When I woke the following morning, I worked almost non-stop on my dissertation. By channelling the energy I had been wasting on my definitely-ex-boyfriend into my university coursework, I managed to make a huge amount of progress. That evening Brad, Corinne and George called round to see if I wanted to go to the pub. I said no, but helped them to persuade Vicki to go with them.
My evening should have been uninterrupted, however at nine o’clock Mum messaged me: R U OK?
She’s the only person I know who still uses text speak.
Feeling very guilty, I called her on my tablet. I apologised for not calling earlier and confessed that Henry had phoned the previous evening and made me promise to call them. After assuring both her and Dad that I was fine, I told her that my friends had all rallied round, and that Vicki was looking after me.
For a moment. I considered telling my parents that I’d met James, but I decided against it. He had to remain a secret because I knew the reaction that his name would get, particularly from Dad. I haven’t lied to Mum, I told myself when I ended the call. But, deep down, I knew that I’d lied by omission.
Vicki didn’t get back from the pub until midnight. She was more than a little squiffy, and insisted that I needed to get out more. She said that, in future, I would be forced to go to the pub with them. I made her a coffee, and then went to bed.
I was in the woodland which surrounded the Potter’s home. I should not have been there, so I was creeping stealthily through the trees when I saw James’s parents. They were flying, sitting astride broomsticks just like storybook witches. For some reason they were passing a red ball between each other as they flew. I watched in amazement for several minutes, until James’s mother spotted me and swooped down through the trees to talk to me. She asked what I had seen, so I told her. She looked very sad.
I woke in a sweat. As I lay, looking up at my bedroom ceiling, it seemed more like a long lost memory than a dream. It took me some time to get back to sleep.
We looked at the hole where we’d hidden the Tupperware box. James placed his hand on the stone above it, and with ceremonial solemnity, we all did the same. Seven hands, seven pin-pierced forefingers, and seven bloody thumbprints on the document. We were seven. I had no idea whether we were magnificent, samurai, lucky, or merely secret; I suspected the latter, but for some reason I could not remember.
On Saturday morning I woke early, convinced that I had a cut on my forefinger. Once I’d ascertained that I didn’t, I dozed, and wondered whether James would, in fact, turn up. I was lying on my side and staring across at my desk, which was covered in coursework, when I remembered some obscure case law from my first year notes. I was so certain of my facts that I immediately got up to check.
It took me some time to find the information but, as I’d hoped, the case–which I’d studied in my first year–would certainly help my argument. My dissertation was on the weaknesses in the protections in protocol six of the European Convention on Human Rights.
My argument was that the protocol, which restricts a nation’s rights in respect of the death penalty, was not restrictive enough. The case was additional evidence that some signatory nations were happy to flout the intent, if not the letter, of the legislation. The court itself had been used in an attempt to legitimise the loopholes. In my head, heard Simon’s voice drawl, “All governments break treaties and flout international law, just accept the fact,” and, while it was true, I was determined to show how immoral it was.
I was busy typing my conclusions when the doorbell rang. I ignored it, because I knew that if I didn’t reach the end of the paragraph I would lose my train of thought. The second I hit “save”, I checked the clock. To my astonishment it was 12:04! Somehow, Saturday morning had vanished, and the afternoon had arrived. I dashed across to my bedroom door. By that time, however, Vicki had already responded to the bell’s fifth or sixth ring.
‘Anna is still in her bedroom. I think she must be busy. Are you sure she’s expecting you?’ I heard my flatmate ask as I opened my door.
Vicki’s voice was high and squeaky, a sure sign that she was nervous. Unfortunately, Vicki’s nerves were highly contagious. For the first time since I’d said goodbye to James I wondered whether I had done the right thing in agreeing to see him again. Did I really want to start another relationship? Did he? What was happening between us? Instead of calling out a greeting, I crept onto the landing, stood just out of sight of the front door, and listened.
‘I hope so,’ James told her. ‘It’s now almost five minutes past twelve. And that makes it Saturday afternoon. I told Annie I’d be here after noon, so here I am. I’m James Potter, by the way. You can call me James, if you like. In fact, you can call me anything you want; most people seem to settle on “you idiot” for some reason. What can I call you?’
‘Vikisha Banerjee–Vicki,’ she told him cautiously.
‘Pleased to meet you, Vicki,’ he told her politely. ‘Aren’t you going to invite me in? Not that I need inviting in.’
I heard her let out a frightened squeak.
‘Sorry, Vicki,’ James apologised. ‘That wasn’t meant to be a threat. All I mean is that I’m not a vampire. I wouldn’t enter uninvited, but that’s simply because I’m polite. Vampires can’t enter uninvited. I could, but I won’t. Perhaps that’s why some girls like vampires. Maybe they mistake a bloodsucker’s most easily exploited weakness for politeness. I’m rambling, aren’t I?’
Reassured, and still smiling at his demented dialogue, I peered over the banister to see what was going on. Vicki, all five-feet-two of her, was bravely standing guard at the front door. James was wearing a black leather bike jacket, and carrying two helmets. He was broad shouldered, and the jacket made him look even wider. He didn’t look threatening to me, but it was obvious that Vicki was not going to invite a solidly built leather-clad biker into the flat. I leaned right over in order that he could see me.
‘Come in, you idiot,’ l called.
James looked up at me, and popped his eyes in surprise. ‘See,’ he told Vicki, laughing nervously. ‘Annie definitely knows who I am.’
Vicki reluctantly stepped aside, and James bounded up the stairs two at a time. Vicki followed behind slowly and rather warily.
‘Good afternoon, Annie,’ said James. He looked me up and down, raised an eyebrow, and gave me an uncomfortable look. He was trying to keep his eyes on my face, but he was failing. ‘It’s no wonder Vicki wondered if you were expecting me. Did I wake you up?’
It wasn’t until I registered his expression that I remembered that I was still in my night clothes. My lime green boxer shorts were covered in pink polka dots, and they’d crept up into my bum-crease when I’d been sitting typing. The pink vest was rather skimpy and one strap had fallen off my shoulder. I hitched it back up, pulled the boxers down in an attempt to cover a bit more buttock, and wondered how much of an eyeful I’d given him when I’d leaned over the banister.
Vicki and I often wandered about the flat in our underwear or nightclothes, but not when there were strangers in the place. Our friends from first year didn’t count, of course, because we didn’t regard them as strangers. I was used to seeing Corinne, Vicki, Brad, Phil and George wearing very little. It seemed that my subconscious had, for some reason, already moved James into the “old friends” category.
‘Afternoon, James. I’ve been awake for ages. I was up early, but I’ve been working on my dissertation,’ I told him.
When Vicki reached the landing, she stood and watched us. James was wearing jeans and motorcycle boots. The leather jacket was unzipped, and the white t-shirt he wore beneath it was tight to his torso. It was obvious that my flatmate was rather worried by him. As she also looked rather scandalised by my appearance, I decided to wind her up a little.
‘You’ve seen me wearing less than this,’ I told James, trying to cover my embarrassment. I’d been thinking about our childhood swimming sessions.
‘True, I’ve even seen you topless,’ he said.
‘What? When?’ I asked, startled.
‘In the garden at Drakeshaugh,’ he said. ‘It would have been the summer of 2013, I think.’
‘I was six!’ I said, rolling my eyes. ‘That doesn’t count. But how on earth can you remember that?’
‘I’ve been remembering lots of things since I met you,’ said James thoughtfully. ‘But that wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t only you who was running around wearing nothing but shorts. It was a glorious day and we were the same; me, Henry, Al, Hugo, Lily, Rosie, and you. Mum has the photos to prove it. I found them a few years ago, and used them to embarrass Rosie in front of Sc... the boy she was seeing at the time.’
‘And?’ I asked.
‘It worked!’ James said. ‘But she forgave me, eventually, because his reaction proved that he was a self-important prat.’ He hesitated. ‘Just like me,’ he finished sadly. I assumed that he was again talking about my eleventh birthday.
‘Did you ever try something like that on Lily?’ I asked.
He looked horrified. ‘I’m not that stupid, Annie! I wouldn’t dare try to embarrass Lily. She’d torture me to death, chop my remains into little pieces and bury them where not even Dad would ever find them,’ he admitted. ‘Besides, I’ve never been able to embarrass Lily, and I’ve tried.’
‘Lily is his sister,’ I reminded a horrified-looking Vicki.
‘Sister, surrogate mother, jailer, counsellor, and a lot more,’ said James, sighing thoughtfully. ‘So, are you ready to go?’ He offered me the spare helmet he was carrying.
‘Don’t be stupid, I can’t go out like this,’ I said. As I stared into his face, I suddenly had an evil thought. ‘I’ll get dressed now, and while I’m doing that, you can make me a cup of tea.’
Vicki’s gasp of astonishment rather gave away my game.
‘Aha! It’s a test, is it?’ James asked. ‘I’m not very good with tests, but I’ll do my very bestest, Miss.’
I laughed. ‘See you in ten minutes,’ I told him as I retreated to my bedroom and closed the door.
“I’ll do my very bestest, Miss.” That was another Jamesism from my childhood, and I was again transported back to first school.
My choice of what to wear was made easy by James’ arrival on the bike. Warm, practical and protective was the only sensible option. Most of my trousers were at home in Lintzgarth, as Simon had always preferred me to wear skirts or dresses. Of the three pairs of jeans I had in Sheffield, only one pair would fit inside my riding boots. After pulling on the jeans, which were very skinny and bright red, I slipped into the black and white check shirt, which Simon had always hated. After roughly dragging a brush through my untidy hair, I picked up my sweatshirt and hauled my battered old olive-green Barbour jacket from the wardrobe. It wasn’t a bike jacket, but it was the closest thing I had.
As I cleaned my teeth, I examined myself in the mirror. That was when I realised that, apart from the bright red jeans, I had chosen to wear what Simon had once derogatorily called my “farmer’s wife” clothes. They were, however, hard-wearing and sensible; two things which are essential on a bike. After slapping on a little lipstick, I decided that I’d do.
When I walked into the kitchen, James was dancing around the place singing “Tea for Two” and Vicki was trying not to giggle at his antics.
‘She wouldn’t help me,’ James said with a degree of self-mocking petulance. ‘Not even a hint. And there are no labels on your caddies. I had to identify the teas by smell. The Earl Grey and the Lapsang were easy, of course. As for the others, I’m fairly sure that one is Ceylon Orange Pekoe, and that one smells of mint. In the end I chose the Darjeeling. At least I hope it’s Darjeeling; it certainly smells like Darjeeling.’
‘It is,’ I told him, trying not to appear overly impressed.
‘I haven’t put any milk in the cups, and I haven’t poured either, because I don’t know whether you take milk in Assam. And, besides,’ he admitted, ‘I suspect that you’re the sort of girl for whom “milk first or last?” is a very important question.’
‘You’re right, and it’s milk last,’ I told him. ‘And just a drop. I don’t drown my tea with milk or pollute it with sugar, unlike some people.’ I glanced at Vicki, and James immediately placed the sugar bowl he’d picked up in front of her. I watched him pour the tea through the strainer, and allowed him to pour in the milk.
‘Say when,’ he said.
‘When,’ I said.
‘I don’t know why you bother,’ he told me as he looked down at the tea and watched the tiny amount of milk that I’d allowed him to pour begin its random dance.
James poured a second cup and handed it to Vicki, along with the bottle of milk. Once we had our drinks he finally poured his own tea. He took the milk from Vicki when she offered it, but didn’t put any in his tea. I took a sip from my mug, and he waited expectantly for my verdict.
‘Acceptable,’ I announced.
He looked surprised, and then burst out laughing.
‘I should have expected that. I’m “Acceptable” at almost everything. I very rarely “exceed expectations”.’ His voice had become a self-mocking drawl. ‘Perhaps I should simply be glad you didn’t rate me poor, or dreadful?’ he asked. I recognised the tone of his voice, and it annoyed me.
‘When I was little,’ I told him severely. ‘There were a lot of times when I was convinced that you were making jokes that Henry and I didn’t get. This is one of those times. You did it all the time, James, but especially when that older boy, Teddy what’s-his-name was around. You were always such a smarmy smart-arse when you were trying to show off in front of the big boy.’
‘Sorry,’ said James, looking rather uncomfortable. ‘You’re right, Annie; you’re as sharp as a goblin’s sword, as Granny would say. There are a lot of odd sayings and private jokes in my family, like “sharp as a goblin’s sword”. They all come from Mum’s side.’
I shrugged. ‘Yeah? Well they’re bloody annoying,’ I told him. ‘When I was very little, I often used to think that you were laughing at me. It was always like, “Silly little Annie, she doesn’t know what’s really going on!” you know?’
James said nothing. He simply sipped his tea in a pensive and almost morose silence. I could see the guilt and worry on his face. In the uncomfortable silence, Vicki managed to catch my eye; she gave me a worried look.
‘You’re right, Annie.’ James sighed sorrowfully and stared at the kitchen floor, refusing to meet my eyes.
I, too, looked down, and realised that the floor wasn’t as clean as I like. ‘I really must clean this floor,’ I said.
‘Instead of going for a bike ride?’ he asked. ‘Should I just leave? You were obviously busy doing your university course work. I’ve interrupted you. I’m sure that you’ve got more important things to do, like course work, or cleaning the floor.’
I wondered if he was having second thoughts, or if he was simply nervous. I stood in silence and considered my options. As I drank my tea, I had to admit that James hadn’t done a bad job with the brew. It certainly exceeded my expectations.
‘Look, James,’ I said, trying to sound as though I wasn’t really bothered. ‘You asked me if I wanted to go out with you today. I said yes. If you’ve changed your mind and you want to leave, just go. But don’t get me to make the decision. You decide!’
‘So, you do want to go out for the afternoon?’ he asked cautiously.
‘Bloody hell,’ I snapped. ‘Weren’t you listening to what I just told you? Before you got here, I was looking forward to it. Now I’m not so sure. I enjoyed myself the other day. But I definitely don’t want to spend the day with you if you’re going to mope, or if all you want is to make up for being a complete tosser when you were fourteen.’
‘I don’t know what I want,’ he admitted. ‘That’s the problem, Annie. I never know what I want. But I know that, like you, I enjoyed myself the other day. I’d like to do it again. Let’s go for a bike ride.’
‘I want to see your bike, first,’ I told him. ‘I’ll warn you now, James, I’m not climbing onto the back of some silly little scooter!’
‘No worries there,’ he said, brightening. He slurped down the rest of his tea. ‘Let’s go.’
He handed me his spare helmet and I followed him downstairs.
Back to index
Chapter 5: TigerTiger
I was hot on James’ heels as he thundered down the stairs to the front door. Vicki, who still looked concerned about my plans, hesitated for a moment and then followed us. As he stepped out into the street, James moved aside, swept his arm around, and indicated the gleaming red, black, and chrome machine parked at the kerbside.
‘Annie, meet Tiger,’ he said. ‘And Tiger, meet Annie.’
‘Bloody hell,’ I said as I walked over to examine the bike. It had a ’14 plate, so it was far from new, but it looked immaculate, as if it had just left the showroom. ‘Do you have any idea what this is, Vicki?’ I asked.
‘It’s a Tiger one-thousand-and-fifty Triumph,’ she told me, pointing at the petrol tank. ‘The name is written on the side.’
‘Most people would say ten-fifty, Vicki,’ I told her, winking at James. ‘It must be your mathematical brain. It’s also a Sports Triple, a ten-fifty triple, which means what, my little walking calculator?’
‘I have no idea,’ Vicki told me, but she smiled at my use of the nickname I’d given her in our first year.
‘Oh, miss, I know, I know!’ said James, raising his hand and jumping up and down like an excited six-year-old. ‘Three cylinders, total capacity ten-fifty cubic centimetres, so that means each cylinder is…’ James paused to do the calculation.
‘Three-hundred-and-fifty ccs,’ said Vicki promptly.
‘See, you did know,’ I told her teasingly.
‘One-one-five brake horsepower,’ James continued excitedly, ‘And ... it doesn’t matter.’ His voice tailed off resignedly as he saw Vicki’s eyes begin to glaze over.
‘You can save the technicalities for later, Vicki isn’t interested,’ I said. ‘Is it fast?’
‘Yup!’ James nodded. ‘You might say “like shit off a shovel.” You might! I’d never say anything like that of course. Mum wouldn’t approve.’
‘Never mind fast, is it safe?’ Vicki asked anxiously as she inched carefully towards the bike. She moved as if she was creeping up on a wild animal, as if the silent and slumbering Tiger might burst into life and attack her.
‘I’m sure it’s perfectly safe,’ I assured her. ‘Providing that there’s nothing wrong with the nut holding the handlebars.’
Vicki cautiously peered down to examine the bars, and James laughed.
‘She’s talking about me, Vicki,’ he told her as he placed his helmet on the seat and zipped up his leather jacket. ‘I haven’t crashed it yet, Annie. But I’m not the only nut on the road, remember.’
‘Where are we going?’ I asked.
I handed my jacket and James’ spare helmet to Vicki. After pulling on my sweatshirt, I retrieved the jacket, shrugged it on, and fastened it.
‘I thought that we could go west, out into the Peak district,’ James suggested, reaching for his helmet. ‘If it’s okay with you, I’d like to stop in Hathersage. We could have lunch there and call into the church yard; then we can go on to Blue John and Mam Tor.’
‘Lunch? I haven’t even had breakfast yet,’ I told him. The full-face helmet in my hand was, like his, the colour of the bike’s petrol tank. I pulled it on and fastened it. ‘Why the church yard at Hathersage? Do you want to visit Little John’s grave?’
James looked surprised and a little uncomfortable. ‘Yeah, if that’s okay with you,’ he said. He looked as though he’d been caught in a lie, and for some reason, I remembered the dream I’d had on the night after I’d met him.
‘Does your motorbike fly like your dad’s?’ I asked him.
I thought it was an innocent enough remark, but his face lost its colour; he almost dropped his helmet.
‘Fly?’ His voice was a panic-filled squeak. He cleared his throat, tried to regain his composure, and spoke normally. ‘Motorbikes can’t fly, Annie. What on earth made you ask that?’
‘What on earth made you squeak?’ I retorted sarcastically. ‘It almost sounds as if your denial is the lie. But that’s ridiculous, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah,’ he agreed. Looking down, he pulled a pair of leather gloves from his jacket and placed them next to his helmet. ‘Of course it is.’
He paused, and tried to look into my face. I had the advantage. With the helmet on, he couldn’t even see my eyes properly. I looked into his confused, almost guilty face and tried to work out why James was being so weird.
‘I squeaked because you surprised me, that’s all. You said “fly like my Dad’s”, why in... on earth would you think Dad’s bike could fly?’
‘Because you told me, the first time I sat on your dad’s bike,’ I said.
‘And that memory stuck with you? Did you hang on my every word when you were little?’ he asked teasingly.
Despite his smile, there was a sad and far-away look in his eyes. For a brief moment, I got another glimpse of a nervous and insecure young man, and I wondered if James was really as upbeat and irrepressible as he seemed. His expression reminded me of one I’d seen on my brother’s face just days after Christmas. Sky, his girlfriend, had waited to get her Christmas present before dumping him by text message.
James attempted to mask the fact that he was sinking in a quagmire of self-doubt. I remembered how I had deflated him after my swim at Pond’s Forge and wondered how quickly he’d bounce back. As I watched him, I was also filled with guilt about the way I’d treated Henry. When he’d found out what Simon had done, my brother had phoned me to make sure I was okay. At Christmas, when Henry had been despondent and downhearted, I had been less than sympathetic. I had simply told him that he deserved it; Henry had been hurt, and I’d done nothing to help him.
‘Let’s go,’ James said, pulling himself together and putting on his helmet. ‘The helmets have a, um, a wire-free intercom,’ he added, his voice a stereo whisper in my ears.
‘Wireless,’ I told him.
‘Same thing,’ he muttered as he pulled on his gloves. I grabbed my gloves from my pocket and followed his lead.
James swung his leg over the bike, lifted it upright, and kicked the stand backwards under the exhaust. I waited. Turning his head, he took a firm grip of the bars and nodded to me.
‘Okay,’ he said.
I placed a hand on his shoulder and stepped onto the foot peg, trusting him to hold the bike upright. It barely moved, and I swung my leg over and settled myself down on the pillion seat.
‘Okay,’ I said loudly.
He winced. ‘Wireless,’ he reminded me quietly as he sat between my thighs.
‘Sorry,’ I said. I squeezed his shoulder apologetically.
Moving my hand to take hold of the grab bars beneath my hips, I shuffled backwards on the seat to give him more room. As I did so, I realised that what I was about to do was a very different prospect to sitting pillion behind my dad.
I could hold onto Dad. When I sat behind him I always put my hands around his waist. Physical contact was fine, he was my Dad! But this was James, and no matter what I did, his–admittedly firm and attractive–buttocks were going to be nestled between my thighs for quite some time. I let out an involuntary, and embarrassingly erotic-sounding, groan which I tried to disguise as a cough.
‘You okay?’ he asked carefully, expressing what I hoped was concern.
I cleared my throat theatrically. ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Let’s go.’
James pressed the starter and twisted the throttle; the Tiger roared. Vicki took a step backwards, looking petrified. James toed the bike into gear, and I gave my flatmate a cheery wave. James released the clutch, and we roared off down the street. As we weaved our way through the crowded streets of Sheffield, I glanced around at the car drivers, all cocooned in their little tin boxes, and grinned happily.
Simon’s Audi was a soft top. The thought sprang into my mind while James drove us down past the Royal Hallamshire Hospital. I puzzled for a moment and then realised why I was thinking back to the first time I’d sat in Simon’s Audi with the top down.
We’d been driving through the city, and Simon had asked me what I thought of his flash car. I’d told him that it was okay. My less than ecstatic reply had really annoyed him. Simon had expected me to be a lot more impressed with the car than I was. At the time I hadn’t been able to figure out why it didn’t thrill me in the way he thought it should. Now, suddenly, I knew. I released the grab bars, slid my arms around James’ waist, and gave him a hug.
‘What’s that for?’ he asked. He sounded slightly worried.
‘Don’t worry, it has nothing to do with you,’ I teased.
‘Riding the Tiger,’ he told me immediately. He sounded happy.
‘Riding the Tiger,’ I agreed, giving him another hug simply because he knew.
‘Kristen hated it,’ he said, his voice barely more than a whisper. ‘She wanted me to sell it.’
I released his waist and didn’t reply. I had no idea what to say, although it was obvious to me that Kristen, whoever the hell she was, was a total idiot.
‘Hathersage for lunch?’ he asked. ‘You didn’t say.’
‘That’s fine,’ I said.
Brocco Bank was fairly quiet, but the traffic picked up when we turned onto Ecclesall Road. Fortunately, by the time we reached the outskirts of Whirlow, the road ahead was once again clear.
Within minutes, Ecclesall Road became Hathersage Road, and we were out into open countryside. The moment we left the thirty limit, James kicked the bike up through the gears and opened the throttle. I gave another involuntary--but ] this time definitely happy--squeal. We flew rapidly over the tarmac, and I realised what we were doing. I’d been riding in a thoughtful silence, which I broke.
‘We’re flying,’ I said.
‘Not really,’ he said. He initially sounded dismissive, but then he realised what I was saying.
‘Oh! Yeah! I think that’s what Dad used to say,’ he told me happily, ‘that he’d go flying along on his bike. Perhaps that’s why I told you that his bike could fly.’ He sounded ridiculously happy that, between us, we’d come up with a logical explanation. We lapsed into silence again, and I simply looked around, enjoying the sights and the speed.
Within a matter of minutes, orderly fields filled with grazing cattle gave way to low and lumpy sheep-speckled hills. As we roared along the road, I stared at the few stunted and stubby trees standing on the not-very-distant horizon. We seemed to be hurtling towards the bleak and lonely edge of the world. I lapsed into silence and enjoyed the ride.
We rounded a hill and entered Derbyshire. The landscape changed colour and the horizon expanded. Purple and ochre moorland was added to the greens of farmland and forests. If it weren’t for the unnecessary mortar in the stone walls at the roadside, I could almost have been home in Coquetdale. I smiled happily as we hurtled along the winding country roads. In no time at all, we were approaching Hathersage.
‘Pub or café?’ James asked.
As if on cue, my stomach gave me a grumbling reminder that I hadn’t eaten any breakfast.
‘Whatever we reach first,’ I told him.
‘Your wish is my command,’ he said.
On the outskirts of the village, an A-board on the grass indicated the direction and distance to “The Traveller’s Pack Inn — Fine Food”. We turned down a side road and no more than a minute later, we were pulling into the car park of an old stone pub. As we rolled to a halt, I took my hands from James’ waist. It wasn’t until I did so that I realised what I’d just done. I looked down at my hands as if they belonged to someone else and wondered how long they’d been holding on to him.
‘Are you going to get off?’ James asked.
‘What? Oh yeah!’ I said. I stood up on the foot pegs, trusting him to hold the bike upright, and dismounted.
While he kicked down the stand and lowered the bike onto it, I continued to stare at my hands and rack my brains. How was it possible that I’d managed to put my arms around James without even realising that I’d done it? Thinking back, I recalled that I’d grabbed him soon after we’d entered the hills. It had only been friendly hands-above-hips hold, not a proper sitting behind a boyfriend hug, I reassured myself.
‘Are you going to take that helmet off?’ James asked.
‘What? Oh yeah!’ I said again, fumbling with the strap.
‘Are you okay, Annie?’ James asked solicitously. My behaviour was worrying him.
‘Long time since I’ve been on a bike,’ I said by way of explanation.
He grinned. ‘Still feeling the buzz, aren’t you?’ he asked, accepting my justification. ‘That’s a damn fine singing voice you’ve got.’
‘Singing!’ I stared into his face in horror as I realised that I had another question to answer. How was it possible that I’d managed to sing without even realising that I’d done it? Surely he must be joking? Convinced that he was pulling my leg, I was about to call him out on it, but he burst into song.
‘Says Red Molly to James that's a fine motorbike, oh, a girl could feel special on any such like. Says James to Red Molly, my hat's off to you, it's a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952.’
When James sang the opening words, I realised that I had been singing, and that–much to my surprise–James had a decent enough singing voice. I’d heard him singing Tea for Two in my kitchen, but at the time I hadn’t realised that he was holding the tune.
‘I enjoyed the first couple of lines, but after that it gets a bit grim,’ James said, sounding strangely affected. ‘I haven’t “fought with the law since I was seventeen”, or “robbed many a man” for that matter, but... I suppose I’ve fought my dad a few times, and in a way he is “the law”. But that... Even so, perhaps I’m not irredeemable.’ James held out a hand. I took it, and he led the way into the pub.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’ I asked as he held the door open for me and ushered me through it. The place was busy, but not heaving.
‘Possibly,’ he said thoughtfully. Then he looked over to the bar and immediately changed the subject, ‘What’re you drinking?’
I looked at the long row of pumps at the bar, ‘Robin Hood Ale,’ I said. ‘But I’ll get them, what about you?’
‘No booze for me, not when I’m on the bike,’ he said. ‘I’ll just have a fresh orange juice.’
I caught the barman’s eye. ‘Half o’ Robin Hood and a fresh orange.’
‘No ice in the orange,’ James added as the barman reached for the ice bucket.
Picking up a couple of bar menus, James handed one to me and pulled out his wallet. While the barman finished pulling my half, left it to settle, and poured orange into another glass, I took a quick look at the menu. My stomach was reminding me that I wanted food, not beer.
‘And I’ll have a Scotch broth,’ I told the barman as he topped up my half and placed the drinks on the bar in front of us, and James pulled out a fifty pound note. ‘I’m paying, James,’ I said firmly.
James glanced at the menu. ‘Scotch broth and bread roll sounds good. I’ll have the same.’ James told the barman. He proffered the note to the barman, but I’d waved my phone over the scanner on the bar before James could do anything about it.
‘I was going to pay,’ he protested.
‘You paid for everything the last time we went out,’ I reminded him.
‘Someone will bring the soup over when it’s ready,’ the barman told us. He handed me my receipt and a bright yellow spoon on which the number 7 was painted in red.
Hanging my jacket over the back of the chair, I sat, and placed the spoon in the cutlery pot on the table.
‘Griff... House colours,’ said James as he sat opposite me. I raised my eyebrows. He nodded at the spoon, ‘Red and yellow... my house colours at school.’
‘Seven,’ I said, pointing at the number as another old memory arrived. ‘We were the Drakestone Seven.’
‘Bloody hell,’ he said, staring thoughtfully at me. ‘We were, weren’t we? You, me, Hen, Al, Rosie, Lils, and Hugo, the Drakeshaugh Seven! He looked a little sad. You and Hen were the only two who didn’t wear the red and yellow at school.’
‘We did,’ I said. ‘Perhaps it wasn’t the same red and yellow as you, but we did.’ I pulled out my phone and accessed my photocloud. It took me almost a minute, but I eventually found the photo. ‘There!’ I said triumphantly, showing him the photograph of my brother and me in our yellow t-shirts and red tracksuit trousers. Behind us hung the embattled red and yellow stripes of the flag of Northumberland. ‘That’s us representing the County at the English National Swimming Championships. I was fifteen. Unfortunately, we were hammered by the opposition.’
‘Blimey, Hen looks like he’s a lot bigger than me,’ said James. ‘I’d better watch myself, he was always very protective of you.’
‘No, he wasn’t,’ I protested. ‘He was always horrible to me!’
‘That’s a brother’s privilege!’ James grinned. ‘Being horrible to you doesn’t stop him from being protective of you.’ He took another look at the photograph. ‘And you suited your hair like that, Annie. It was naturally curly when you were little. I’d forgotten.’
I ignored his attempt at a compliment. ‘Henry doesn’t swim, not any more. These days he pumps iron and plays rugby. His nose is a lot more bent than in this old photograph, and his hair’s already receding.’ I said. Turning the camera, I looked at the photograph. I stared at my long, curly, dark blonde hair. These days, curls weren’t fashionable.
‘Simon didn’t like my curls,’ I admitted. ‘So I cut my hair short, lightened, and straightened it.’ I self-consciously ruffled my spiky almost-white mop.
‘You know, every time you say something about Simon, my opinion of him gets lower, which is pretty impressive as I was certain that it had started at rock-bottom,’ James told me. He gently took my hand and tipped it to take another look at the image. ‘This is weird. Have you ever counted the stripes on the flag?’
‘Seven?’ I guessed.
‘You always were smart,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ I agreed. I nodded towards the painted wooden spoon which had started the conversation. ‘But I don’t believe in fate, so don’t try to feed me some crappy line just because of the red and yellow and the number seven on the spoon. I’m not in the mood for romantic bollocks.’
James popped his eyes, put on a thoughtful expression, and stared at me.
‘What?’ I asked. I took a sip of beer.
‘It’s no good,’ he began, shaking his head seriously. ‘I simply can’t imagine romantic bollocks.’
His timing was perfect. I snorted beer down my nose and almost choked with laughter. I was using a serviette to wipe the tears from my eyes and the beer from my nose when a white-aproned girl arrived with our order.
‘She’ll be okay,’ James assured the girl as she placed a bowl of broth and a plate containing a large crusty roll in front of me
After the girl had given James his food, she took the wooden spoon, said, ‘Enjoy your meal,’ and left us.
Hunger assailed me. I tore the large crusty roll in half, dipped it in the broth, and took a bite of soggy bread. It was a mistake. The soup was so hot that it burned my mouth. With watering eyes, I tried to cool down my mouth by panting. As a result, I spat some half chewed bread at James. Mortified, I tried to stare an apology at him. When our eyes met, he burst out laughing.
‘Don’t change, Annie,’ he said. ‘Don’t ever change.’
I eventually managed to swallow the hot, half-masticated mess in my mouth. ‘Fucking hot,’ I told him, gasping. My tongue was tingling, and I could feel the roof of my mouth beginning to blister. I took a gulp of beer. ‘So, are you and your dad okay?’ I asked, trying to change the subject.
‘You really are studying law, aren’t you?’ he asked. ‘One comment from me and you start a cross-examination.’
Deciding to wait and let the soup cool, I opened the pat of butter, which was rock hard, and failed to spread it on the bun. ‘Please stop prevaricating and answer the question,’ I told him with a smile. Giving up on the butter, I simply ate the bread.
‘Tenacious, aren’t you?’ he asked. He looked at me thoughtfully.
‘Stubborn, pig-headed, and obstinate,’ I said, remembering Simon’s major criticisms of me.
‘You make it sound like that’s a bad thing,’ he told me. ‘You’ve always been stubborn, haven’t you? I remember the first time you tried to climb the Drakestone. Never give up, never stop trying. It’s a good thing, Annie. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.’
I could see honest admiration in his eyes. ‘So, what about you and your dad?’ I asked.
He laughed. Reached across the table, he took my hands and squeezed them; when he released them, he put on a serious expression.
‘We fell out when I was eighteen,’ he admitted. ‘I joined a protest group. I wanted to change the world. Unfortunately, they weren’t really a protest group; they simply wanted to get Harry Potter’s son in trouble. It’s a long story, Annie, and in a way it isn’t over yet. I can’t really tell you everything. At the time I honestly thought I was doing the right thing. Maybe–definitely if we keep seeing each other–I’ll tell you one day. I don’t want you to hate me any more than you already do. All I’ll say is that I don’t think Dad trusts me to stay on the straight and narrow, and–well last year didn’t help.’ There was something in his expression which told me it was a girl.
‘Kristen,’ I said between mouthfuls of bread, ‘The girl who wanted you to sell the Tiger. Tell me about her, instead.’ He recoiled from the name.
‘She’s the past,’ he assured me.
‘Eight weeks,’ he admitted.
‘Eight weeks,’ I said. ‘You’re still keeping count.’
‘Aren’t you?’ he asked.
‘Yeah,’ I admitted.
‘I used to count the days,’ said James quietly. ‘But I haven’t thought much about her since...’ He paused. ‘Since I met you,’ he admitted, waiting for me to scold him for his confession.
‘On Wednesday, you gave me a shoulder to cry on. It’s only fair I do the same,’ I reminded him. ‘And you might not want to talk to me about your dad, but you do want to tell me about her. I know you do. It’s obvious in those big hazel eyes of yours.’
‘There are a lot of things I’d like to tell you,’ he admitted. ‘Like I said, some of them I can’t, not yet. I have a lot of secrets, Annie, But I suppose I can tell you about Kristen.’
‘Go on then,’ I said before I pushed the final piece of bread into my mouth.
‘Kristen Kelly,’ he said. ‘We were together for eleven months, and I thought she was the one. Mum told me that she was trouble, but who listens to their mother? And besides, she said the same thing about…’ He sighed. ‘She was right then, too,’ he admitted.
‘Eight weeks ago I discovered that Kristen had been seeing someone else for a couple of months,’ he paused and looked down at his plate. He hadn’t touched the bread or the broth. ‘You shouted and threw things. Did it help?’
I thought back to that evening and, for the first time, I was able to rationally analyse what happened and my reaction to it.
‘No,’ I admitted. ‘Well, I suppose the shouting helped me to release my emotions, a bit. But really, it wasn’t a rational reaction.’
‘No one can be rational all the time,’ James told me. ‘Except Aunt Luna, of course.’
‘It was the betrayal,’ I said when I finished laughing at the idea of “Aunt Luna” doing anything rational. ‘It is the betrayal. The realisation that I’d been lied to was what hurt the most. Does anything help with betrayal?’
‘I haven’t found anything,’ said James. He sounded uncomfortable. ‘I was working in a cafe, and working on my writing, when Craig–my best friend from school…’
I raised my eyebrows.
‘My best friend from big school,’ he corrected himself. ‘I’ve been thinking a lot about Hen since I met you. I’ve even been dreaming about us all. Anyway, Craig fancied Lily and he asked me to arrange a double date. I persuaded Lily to go, and he brought Kristen. After two months with her I had got a job in the Ministry; it was a boring job, but the salary was okay. Four months after that, Kristen had moved into the flat I was renting. We’d only been living together for a couple of months when I found out she was... She was shagging a friend of mine. Office gossip! I went home to confront her, but she’d gone. I’d been trying to settle down, trying to conform. Kristen and I had been putting money into a joint account. We were saving up for a deposit on a house. She’d closed the account, emptied it, and taken almost everything of value from our flat. Dad wanted to track her down, but I told him to leave it.’
The hurt showed in his face, and somehow I knew that there was more.
‘Except...’ I said.
‘Except... She took my pocket watch. The gold watch Mum and Dad bought me for my seventeenth,’ he spotted my quizzical expression. ‘A gold watch on the seventeenth is a family tradition,’ he explained. ‘After Kristen left, I quit my job. I’d never been keen on it; I don’t think I’m made to be a Ministry pen-pusher. And now I’m sort-of unemployed.’
‘You told me that you were a journalist,’ I reminded him.
‘I don’t have a proper job,’ James admitted. ‘But, I’ve been commissioned to write an article for a history journal That must make me a journalist.’
‘History?’ I said, surprised. ‘You don’t look much like a historian.’
‘Aunt Luna doesn’t look much like a naturalist,’ said James. ‘But, somehow, she makes a living from it. I was lucky, really. When I went to tell Mum and Dad I’d quit the Ministry job, Aunt Luna was visiting. Mum was really upset with me for quitting another job, but Aunt Luna said: “What’s the point in doing a job you don’t like? You’re a clever boy, James, you should find something you love to do and try to make a living from that.” So I am.’
As he quoted Luna, I could hear her. He’d used her dreamy, sing-song inflections in his voice. ‘What are you going to write about?’ I asked. Before he could speak, I answered the question myself. ‘Robin Hood, of course, why else would you want to visit Little John’s grave? But, history! I’d never have guessed you’d choose that subject. Do you have a degree?’
‘No.’ James shook his head. ‘History has always fascinated me. That surprises everyone who knows me, particularly as my history teacher at school was totally tedious and had been doing the job for at least a hundred years. But although old Binns was boring, the subject itself isn’t, not at all.’ His eyes gleamed. ‘Professor Binns hated the legendary stuff, so I used to ask him about it constantly. The most fascinating parts of history are the legends, don’t you think?’
‘But they aren’t real history, James,’ I protested. ‘That’s why they’re called legends.’
His eyes widened, and I saw another James–a passionate, interested man who was enthusiastic about his subject.
‘Fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende,’ he said. ‘That’s from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles, it means “fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky”. Written eleven hundred years ago about something that happened only a hundred years earlier. They were supposedly portents of the Viking raids, but think about all the stories, Annie. We’ve all heard them. You know about Merlin, Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table, everyone does.’
‘And what about the stories we were told when we were little? You know about the great worm of Lambton; your Mum told us that story, she taught us the song. You sang it when you were ten. “Whisht lads, had yer gobs, al tell ye aal an aafull story,” You’ve always had a good voice. And there’s the story your dad told us, about the laidly worm of Spindlestone Heugh. And Drake is another word for dragon. Drakestone, Drakeshaugh; dragon’s stone, dragon’s hollow. That’s what I’m interested in, Annie, the point where Mu… where history and legend meets.’ His brown eyes were wide with passion as he spoke.
‘But... Robin Hood,’ I protested, trying again.
‘My original plan was to go looking for the worms, or wyrms or dragons or whatever they were, of Northumbria. To go home. But I found you here, and... This isn’t far from Robin Hood country, and they’re great stories. Everybody knows about Little John and most people have heard that he was really John Little of Hathersage. The story of Robin and Marion is timeless. And then there’s Much the Miller’s son, Will Scarlet, Alan A’Dale, and the Sheriff of Nottingham. What if they’re real? What if they are all real, their stories twisted over the centuries, turned into myth?’
I smiled and shook my head in mock despair. ‘You’re crazy. I don’t see how you can hope to make a living from this nonsense, especially as you’ve forgotten the fat friar,’ I teased.
‘What?’ he said. I could tell by his face that, for some reason, my words had shaken him.
‘Tuck,’ I said, laughing at his confusion. ‘If you’re going to try to list “Robin Hood and his Merry Men,” you shouldn’t forget Friar Tuck.’
‘Tuck, the Fat Friar!’ His face creased into a grin. ‘Annie Charlton, you are a true genius!’ he announced loudly. The drinkers at the adjoining tables turned to look at me. ‘I really hope it’s true!’
‘What on earth are you talking about?’ I asked.
‘Something I learned at my school,’ he said. ‘A... a ghost story, I really hope that it’s connected. Thanks, Annie.’ He looked down at his broth. ‘I think this’ll be cool enough to eat, now. You’ve finished your roll, but you haven’t started your soup. D’you want to share my roll?’ He tore it in half and offered me more bread.
‘I haven’t had any breakfast,’ I reminded him by way of an excuse as I took it.
‘No need to apologise,’ he said with a grin.
Back to index
Chapter 6: Peverell?Peverell?
On our way out from the pub, James stopped to ask the barman for directions to the church. The man cheerfully told us that it was only a short distance away and that, if we hadn’t turned off the main road to the pub, we’d have missed it.
‘It’s a church and a graveyard,’ he added, his voice as dour as his face. ‘I shouldn’t say this, but there’s nowt to see, not really.’ He paused thoughtfully, and turned his eyes from James’ face to mine. I thought I saw a twinkle in his eye. ‘Cracking view across the valley, o’ course, but nowt else.’
‘Little John...’ James began.
‘The grave o’ “John Little o’ Hathersage,” aye,’ the man nodded slowly, and I could hear the quotation marks he’d placed around the name. ‘It’s nobbut a Victorian folly, but I reckon ye’ll want t’ go an’ see that for yersel’s.’ After confirming my suspicions, he gave us a sardonic smile, shrugged, and turned away to serve another customer.
‘Are we still going?’ I asked as James held the pub door open for me.
‘Aye, lass, that we are,’ said James in a fair approximation of the barman’s accent. I smiled.
We remounted the Tiger and, by following the barman’s instructions, James soon found the steep road. The lane was, unsurprisingly, named Church Bank. It was little wider than a car, but trees arched over the stone wall on each side, making it appear even narrower. It was fortunate that we didn’t meet anything coming the other way. The lane widened a little at the church, but not enough to ensure that the bike would be safe from passing traffic should we park there, so we followed the signs up to the car park.
‘We could’ve walked up here from the pub,’ I said as we left the bike and walked into the graveyard.
‘I didn’t realise how close it was. And we’re going to Mam Tor, remember,’ James explained, a concerned look on his face. ‘I’m being sensitive, thinking of your well-being. Two walks in one day might be too much for you, little Annie.’
‘Idiot!’ I told him, playfully pushing his shoulder. He stumbled backwards as if I’d landed a solid blow on him and tried to look astonished by my strength. ‘What a wuss!’ I said scornfully. ‘I bet I’m fitter than you are.’
‘Swimming, tomorrow morning at Ponds Forge, name your time,’ he challenged, raising his fists and taking up a mockery of a boxing stance. ‘I’ll show you who’s toughest! Raarr!’
‘No!’ I said.
I noted his surprise. He hadn’t expected me to turn him down.
‘Nope,’ I told him smugly. ‘Tomorrow’s Sunday, so there’s no lane swimming. Make it Monday, at four o’clock, Jimbo! Prepare to have your arse handed to you on a plate.’
‘Jimbo?’ he asked. ‘No one’s ever called me that. Why Jimbo?’
I shrugged. ‘I asked you to call me Annabel, or Anna, but you use Annie anyway. I’m simply exploring my options, Jimmy.’
He stared into my face, and grinned. ‘And once you find the one I hate the most...’ He stopped expectantly.
‘That’s the one I’ll use,’ I told him, smiling.
‘That’s not fair,’ he complained.
‘You claimed to be sensitive, to be thinking of my well-being! But you’re still calling me Annie. Why?’ I asked.
His brown eyes bored into mine. He seemed to be staring into my soul. ‘Because–and you’re going to deny this–deep down you like it when I call you Annie, Annie; that’s completely obvious to someone as sensitive as me. So there’s no reason for you to call me Jimbo.’ he moved closer, and I thought that he was going to try to kiss me. I was a little disappointed when he didn’t. ‘You’ve always been Annie to me, Annie, and I bet Hen still calls you Annie.’
‘He does,’ I admitted, impressed and amused by the number of times he’d managed to use my name. That was when I remembered my brother’s phone call. ‘I forgot to tell you. Henry phoned me the other day when he found out about you. He asked me to say hello to Jamie. I forgot.’
‘Jamie,’ James grinned. ‘Hen’s the only one who calls me Jamie. I hate it!’
‘No, you don’t,’ I said. ‘You only want me to think you do.’
He shook his head at my comment and put on his thoughtful face. It was his real thoughtful face, not the, I’m-pretending-to-think-deep-thoughts face, which was all furrowed brows and pursed lips. This was the pensive, slightly baffled, I’m-going-to-have-to-use-my-brain look that indicated he really was thinking. I wondered what was troubling him and watched as he very carefully chose his next words.
‘Annabel May Charlton,’ James began with my Sunday name. That might have meant trouble, but I couldn’t tell if he was being serious. ‘The day we met, I spoke to Rosie on my phone. I was going to tell her about you. You practically begged me not to. In fact, you asked me not to tell anyone. So I haven’t. But you must have told people, lots of people. How else could Hen know? Do your Mum and Dad know?’
He was right, and he’d managed to make me feel guilty about my actions. For some reason that annoyed me. I chose not to answer him.
‘The barman was right, it’s a great view,’ I said, pointing past him, out across the countryside.
James looked over his shoulder. The church sat on a hillside above Hathersage. From our vantage point we could see slate-roofed stone houses below us. In the distance, the greens, browns, and purples of the heather-clad hills swept up to meet the sky, making the horizon undulating and colourful.
‘It is,’ James agreed. ‘Now answer the question.’
‘Why Mam Tor?’ I asked. His eyes narrowed as I continued to avoid his question. ‘I didn’t think you knew this part of the world.’
He pulled a face, but rather than rise to my baiting, he answered my question. ‘I don’t, not really,’ he admitted. ‘Rosie knew that I wanted to come here, to see Little John’s grave. She suggested that, afterwards, we travel on to Mam Tor. Do you know the place?’
‘So you have told someone. Rosie knows we’re together!’ I pounced on his words.
‘Rosie knows I’m meeting the girl I met in town,’ said James. ‘I haven’t told her who you are. So, who have you told?’
‘Mam Tor is a bit of a tourist attraction like Blue John cavern. It’s a bigger climb than the Drakestone round, and it’s a little bit further, but there are steps and a decent path most of the way. It’s not bogs and rough terrain like the Drakestone and Harbottle Lough,’ I continued to avoid answering his question, simply because it amused me. As I looked up into his smiling face, I was sure that he, too, was amused. ‘It shouldn’t be too hard a walk, even for a big soft city boy like you. Now, let’s go and see this grave you’re so interested in.’
I grabbed his hand and pulled, but James didn’t move. He lowered his eyebrows in a mockery of a frown and set himself against me. Although he didn’t say anything, I knew that he wouldn’t move until I answered his question. Fortunately, I’d bought myself enough time to formulate a reply that didn’t make me look two-faced.
‘We were spotted by Brad and Corrine, remember? The restaurant?’ I said. ‘My friends know who you are. And Simon saw us, too. He was being an arse about you online, so I amended my profile to say who you were. Henry spotted it and phoned me up to ask what was going on.’
Despite my excuses, which were good ones, I was still feeling a little guilty. I’d asked James not to tell anyone, and it seemed that he’d kept his promise. But I’d told almost everyone. The only people who didn’t know were my parents.
‘Are you serious?’ I asked. ‘Didn’t you tell Rose who you were going out with when you saw her?’
‘You said don’t tell,’ said James. ‘So I didn’t.’
I stared into his shining hazel eyes and decided that he was telling the truth, and also that he wasn’t really annoyed. He was teasing me again. He really had kept his word. The realisation that James Potter had kept his word made me feel guilty. And the realisation that, even after every nasty trick he’d pulled over the years, James could make me feel guilty annoyed me. I needed to regain the moral high ground.
‘My parents don’t know about you,’ I said. ‘And I’d like to keep it that way, at least for the moment. But I shouldn’t have been so worried when you phoned Rosie. After all, there’s no reason why she shouldn’t know. In fact, there’s no reason why the rest of the Drakestone Seven shouldn’t know. After all, we all swore an oath–in blood!’ I grinned at the memory of us standing at the Drakestone.
‘The Drakestone Seven!’ James smiled. Lifting his head, he stared over my shoulder, not into the distance, but into our shared childhood. When he shook his head and brought himself back to the present, half-remembered childhood adventures danced across his smile.
‘I’d almost forgotten,’ he admitted. ‘Those were good days. You, me, Hen, Rosie, Al, Lily-Lou, and Hugo–we were adventurers, dragon-slayers, righters of wrongs, explorers. In those days we weren’t constrained by anything as mundane as reality. We could do anything, be anyone!’ Happiness shone from his eyes like a searchlight. ‘And that’s what we did.’
‘You once told us that you wanted to be the greatest wizard in the world,’ I reminded him. ‘How’s that working out?’
‘Not as well as I expected,’ he admitted, looking a little embarrassed. ‘But you haven’t become Prime Minister or stopped bad people from doing bad things, either.’ He reached up and ruffled my hair affectionately. ‘There’s still time for both of us, although I think you’re more likely to succeed than I am.’
‘Just a bit,’ I said, laughing.
‘I really wanted to tell Rosie, because she’s strordinarily curious about who I’ve met.’ James gave a huge grin as he used another of his childhood words. ‘I’ll tell her tonight; I’ll let Al, Lily, and Hugo know, too. It’s only fair.’
‘Tonight?’ I asked. I’d thought we would be out until late. ‘Are you planning on seeing Rosie tonight?’
‘I expect I’ll see her. After all, I’m living with her.’ He saw my face and laughed. ‘Rosie’s parents have bought her a two-bedroom house in a place called Crookes, so I’ve moved into her spare room. You’re going to be stuck with me for a while, Annie.’
‘You’re living with Rosie? What does Uncle Ron think about that?’ I asked.
I’d always called Rose’s lanky ginger-haired dad “Uncle Ron”. I’d always called James’ dad “Uncle Harry”, too, although I wasn’t related to either of them.
‘Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione expected her to live alone. They didn’t want her to have to share a flat with any old riffraff,’ said James.
He’d set me up nicely for a riposte, so I didn’t disappoint him. ‘But you’ve dashed their hopes in that regard!’
James tried to look hurt. ‘I’ll have you know that I’m not “any old” riff-raff,’ he protested.
I patted his shoulder consolingly. ‘No, James. I know what a very special sort of riff-raff you are,’ I told him.
As he laughed, he put an arm around my shoulders and gave me a very brotherly hug. It was definitely a sign of affection, but I was disappointed. It seemed that James was once again seeing me as his best friend’s kid sister, and nothing more. I ignored the hug and returned to the reason for our visit.
‘Look, Jamie, a big grave!’ I said, pointing across the graveyard.
He didn’t reply. Instead, he released me. Wide-eyed, he swayed slightly, putting all his weight on one foot, then the other. I stifled a laugh. It was his “excited” stance, and it seemed it hadn’t changed in the years since I’d last seen him. He abandoned me, striding rapidly down the path to examine the grave. With a rueful shake of my head, I followed.
It was a tourist attraction, and that was immediately obvious as we approached it; even so, it was an impressive edifice. The headstone read “Here lies buried Little John, the friend & lieutenant of Robin Hood…” The grave was extraordinarily long, at least two-and-a-half metres from headstone to footstone. Although the headstone was well tended, it was also relatively modern, perhaps a couple of centuries old, but no more.
‘The barman was right, it’s not old enough,’ I observed.
James shrugged, crouched down, and placed one hand in his pocket, the other on the grass. ‘You’re right, Annie, but that doesn’t mean that the bones in this grave aren’t older. Perhaps they really are his,’ he tried to keep the excitement from his voice, but failed.
Suddenly unwilling to curb his enthusiasm, I bit back the sarcastic remark I’d been about to make and watched him. He stared down at his hand. From his expression it seemed that he was trying to see, or feel, what was inside the grave. He grinned and nodded.
‘He can’t possibly be that tall.’ I protested. ‘No one’s that tall!’ It was then that I remembered the dream I’d had the night after we’d met. ‘Apart from that huge and hairy old bloke your dad knew, the one with the weird name–Hagrid.’
‘Rubeus Hagrid,’ said James quietly as he remembered that particular giant of a man. When he looked up at me, I saw a mix of sadness, admiration, and excitement in his eyes. ‘If you keep coming up with comments like that, Annie, I may have to credit you as the co-author of my article.’
‘Santa,’ I said, my mind drifting back to Drakeshaugh. James looked puzzled. ‘One of my earliest childhood memories is of Mr Hagrid stepping out from the fireplace at Drakeshaugh. It was just before Christmas, and I thought he was Santa. The memory is really clear, although it’s also ridiculous. People don’t really step out from a fireplace, do they? Thinking about that always makes me wonder what I really saw.’
James looked startled, and then lowered his head so I couldn’t see his eyes. ‘Rubeus Hagrid was big and strong, and usually he was a very gentle man. In many ways he was like Little John, although I don’t suppose that Little John was a keen knitter,’ he said thoughtfully. When he looked up, his face was tinged with sorrow, and I finally caught the tense he was using.
‘Was?’ I asked quietly, knowing what was coming.
‘He was ninety-five when he died,’ James told me as he stood up from the grave.
‘That’s a good age, particularly for someone as big as he was,’ I said. I had an overwhelming urge to hug James, and I gave in to it. ‘He meant a lot to you, and to your dad, didn’t he?’
‘Yeah,’ James admitted. ‘He was a link to Dad’s parents, one of the very few Dad had.’ He patted my back and hugged me. It was a strong and friendly hug, but when I squeezed him, he released me. ‘Thanks, Annie. I’ve seen enough here, shall we leave?’
Hathersage was busy, and people turned to look as the bike roared down the high street. We soon reached the centre of town, where a signpost pointed the way towards Hope and Castleton. Within minutes we were back out into open countryside.
The road up the valley was wider and a lot busier than any of the roads up into Cheviotdale. The valley bottom was wide and flat, and the hills more distant than in my home. As I watched the world fly past, I was surprised to find myself feeling a little homesick.
We banked into sweeping bends and roared through the countryside, and my mind continued to wander back to Cheviotdale–to my home, Lintzgarth, and to James’ place, the almost magical Drakeshaugh. My recollections were interrupted when we slowed. I looked up just in time to see a sign saying “Welcome to Hope” flash past. As we rode through the village, I once again had the urge to sing. I managed to restrain myself for a while, but when James began singing ‘One Sunday morning Lambton went a-fishing in the Wear; an’ catched a fish upon his hook he thowt looked very queer,’ I realised that, although I hadn’t been singing, I’d been humming the tune under my breath.
‘Mum used to sing “one Sunday morn young Lambton went”,’ I said. ‘And it’s heuk, not hook, and varry, not very.’
‘That’s right, take the Mickey out of my accent, why don’t you?’ said James. We passed under a bridge, and I saw a sign: “Thank you for driving carefully through Hope”. We were out of the village as suddenly as we’d entered it. As we rode out into the open countryside, James continued. ‘I can’t remember all the words, anyway. Perhaps you should sing it to me.’
‘All of a sudden I’m not in the mood to sing,’ I said, trying to sound sad. ‘I’m beyond Hope!’
Simon wouldn’t have understood, he’d have given me that “shut-up-you-foolish-girl” look of his, but James had obviously been paying attention to the road signs. He roared with laughter. ‘Your Dad would be proud of you, Annie,’ he said, squeezing my knee. ‘That’s definitely as bad as anything he could come up with.’
The moment was lost almost immediately. We banked into a sharp right-hand bend, foot pegs almost brushing tarmac, and were faced with a car that had strayed over the double white lines. James sounded his horn, straightened up, and swerved to the left. We passed within inches of the car, and I gave the startled driver two fingers. We were heading for the verge, and a hedge, but James dropped the bike back into the bend. Somehow we made it round the corner without going onto the grass. The Tiger seemed to be glued to the road.
It was a fine piece of riding on James’ part, but as the incident unfolded I was too busy swearing to be impressed.
‘Fucking cunt!’ I shouted. ‘He was on the wrong side of the fucking road! He could’ve... We could’ve... Fuck! Fucking fuck!’ I was shaking, and my arms were wrapped tightly around James’ chest.
‘He didn’t. We missed him, and we’re okay,’ James told me calmly. Taking his left hand from the handlebars, he reached back and slid his hand gently up the outside of my leg and squeezed my hip. It was enough to make me realise how tightly I’d been holding him. I slackened my grip on his torso. He slid his hand slowly down my thigh for a final caress of my knee before returning his hand to the handlebars. ‘We’re safe, Annie, so no more swearing, please. Why don’t you sing instead? I’ll whisht, and haad my gob, and you can tell me about the worm.’
I was tingling from his touch. A thigh squeeze wasn’t the action of a man out with his best friend’s sister! Or was it? My knees were tight against his thighs. So long as we were riding the Tiger, my legs were the only parts of me he could touch. But a reassuring knee squeeze would have been easy for him; instead, he’d reached as far as he safely could. Was I over-analysing? I had no idea what sort of relationship James wanted, but I had no idea what sort of relationship I wanted, either. I knew James too well, and at the same time, not well enough.
Uncertain of what else I could do or say, I did as he asked.
‘One Sunday morn young Lambton went,
A-fishing' in the Wear;
He catched a fish upon he's heuk,
He thowt leuk't varry queer.
But whatt'n a kind of fish it wez
Young Lambton couldnae tell.
He hadn't the fash te carry it hyem,
So he hoyed it doon a well.’
As I began to sing the chorus, James joined in.
‘Whisht! Lads, had yor gobs,
An A'll tell ye's aall an aaful story
Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa'll tell ye 'boot the worrm.’
I was still singing, and James was still adding his voice to the chorus, when we entered Castleton. We roared through the narrow streets.
‘This fearful worm wad often feed
On caalves an' lambs an' sheep,
An' swaller little bairns alive
When they laid doon te sleep.
An' when he'd eaten aall he cud
An' he had had he's fill,
He craaled away an' wrapped he's tail
Ten times roond Penshaw Hill.’
James didn’t join in. ‘Bloody hell!’ he said, suddenly slamming on the brakes. I grabbed his waist and squealed as the Tiger slid to a halt at a tiny little side road. My heart was once again galloping, but this time his sudden manoeuvre puzzled me. So far as I could tell nothing seemed to be wrong with the bike and the road was quiet.
‘What’s the matter?’ I asked.
James began to laugh. ‘Sorry, Annie, it’s Rosie!’ he said. ‘She’s a lanky, nerdy swot; sometimes I forget that underneath it all, she’s still a Weasley.’
‘And I’ve forgotten to bring my Gibberish/English dictionary, Jimbo,’ I said sarcastically. ‘Nothing you’ve just said makes any sense. You’ll have to translate for me.’
‘Look.’ He pointed at the sign at the junction.
‘Peveril Castle,’ I said. ‘I can read. It’s a castle, so what? They’re a bit of a rarity around here, not like up our way.’ I peered in the direction of the sign and spotted the castle perched on top of the hill. ‘It looks like there’s more left than there is of Harbottle Castle, but it’s definitely no Bamburgh.’
‘Why isn’t this place called Peveril?’ James asked.
Kicking the bike back into gear, he turned off the main road and rode up the aptly named Castle Street.’
‘What?’ I asked.
‘Harbottle Castle is in Harbottle, Bamburgh Castle is in Bamburgh,’ James explained as we rolled slowly up the road.
‘We’re on Castle Street in Castleton, and you’re surprised that there’s a castle? I always suspected that you were thick,’ I told him sarcastically. Because of his sudden stop, my heart was still beating at nineteen to the dozen.
‘This place is called Castleton, not Peveril,’ he said.
‘So what?’ I asked. ‘There’s a castle in Newcastle too, and it doesn’t even have a name, it’s just “the castle”.’
‘That’s different,’ James protested. ‘The city is Newcastle because it’s named after the new castle! The clue is in the name, Annie.’
‘New! It’s more than nine hundred years old,’ I said. ‘What’s all this about, James? Surely you saw enough castles when you were young?’
He snorted with laughter. ‘I even went to school in a castle. But it’s not the castle, Annie, it’s the name. When Rose suggested that I take “my mystery girl” to Mam Tor, she said, “You might find Castleton as interesting as Hathersage.” Now I know why!’ he told me. ‘Is it okay if we take a walk up to the castle?’
‘On one condition,’ I said, sighing. ‘You have to tell me why you’re so excited about this particular castle. You’ve seen bigger and better ones than this. Was your private school–whatever it was called–really a castle?’
‘Yes,’ James admitted. ‘Although it’s been modernised–a bit.’
He squeezed the bike into a narrow space at the end of a long line of cars and waited for me to dismount. He said nothing until our helmets were fastened to the bike.
Looking into my eyes, he struggled to figure out what to tell me. ‘According to the stories... well, according to Dad, I suppose... The Potters... We’re... It’s...’
‘Bleak cheap interview, pool cue fancy pants. chick baits apricot, short term sweat,’ I sang.
‘If you’re going to talk gibberish again, so am I,’ I told him. ‘You’ve been blabbering about names and castles, but you’re not making any sense. Hamstring monument, shark shit welterweight...’ I continued the song.
‘Okay!’ James held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. ‘It’s complicated, but...’ He paused for thought, but when I opened my mouth, he continued. ‘My family, the Potters, are related to an old wiz–wise–at least supposedly wise family called Peverell,’ he spelt the name for me. ‘According to various, well, we–I–Dad... No, that’s too complicated. There are lots of stories about the Peverells and we–the Potters–are supposed to be their descendents, but other than a few gravestones in a West Country village called Godric’s Hollow, I’ve never found any evidence of where the first of the Peverells lived.’
‘So you’re researching your family tree as well?’ I asked.
‘Sort of,’ he told me. ‘You know that most people reckon that there are only a few types of English surname: occupational, descriptive, geographic, and patronymic?’
‘I’m a Potter,’ he explained. ‘So, in all likelihood, one of my ancestors made pots; unless he simply pottered about the place. You’re a Charlton, which I think is geographic–a place name. It’s probably old English, from ceorl tun, which means your ancestors came from a peasant farm.’
‘Thanks,’ I said sarcastically. ‘You’re a tradesman, but I’m a mere peasant!’
‘Peverell is difficult,’ he continued, ignoring my interruption. It seems that a Peverell came over from Normandy with William the Bastard...’ I raised an eyebrow. He shrugged. ‘I’ll call him William the Conqueror, if you prefer. But solid information about ... about the family has proved very hard to find. There’s a place called Peverell, with an E and two Ls, it’s a suburb of Plymouth, and there’s a Hatfield Peverel, with an E and only one L, near Chelmsford. But until now I had no idea that there was a Peveril Castle.’
‘Spelling,’ I began. He waved me into silence.
‘Spelling is a recent invention,’ he said dismissively.
‘Five or six hundred years, that’s all,’ he told me, smiling. ‘C-W-E-N. Any idea what that spells?’
I shook my head.
‘A few hundred years ago, that was a perfectly acceptable way to spell the title given to a king’s wife,’ he told me. ‘So V-E-L, V-I-L, one L or two, none of them make any difference. Damn Rosie! I wonder how long she’s known about this castle, and she’s never told me.’
‘Are you looking for Robin Hood, your ancestors, or dragons?’ I asked. ‘You seem to be flitting from one thing to another, James. You said that we were going out for a walk. There was no mention of outlaws or dragons or ancestors until you got me on the back of the Tiger.’
‘You’re right,’ he said shamefacedly. ‘I dragged you away from your studies, Annie. I shouldn’t impose mine on you. I’ll certainly be revisiting Hathersage Church without you. So I can come back here another day, too. I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay,’ I told him. ‘You’re like a little kid, James, particularly when it comes to all this stuff. You’re either a really good liar, or you know your ancient history. Did you make up that bit about my name?’
‘Ceorl tun? No, I didn’t make it up. Tun means farm, it’s in lots of place names, usually as “ton”.
‘Ashington, Ellington, Widdrington, Washington,’ I said, trying to sound clever.
‘Yeah, but they’re all “ing” ton’s; that means farmstead belonging too. So there must’ve been someone called Ash, Ell, Widdr, and Wash who owned the original farm.’
‘I’m beginning to think that you actually know what you’re talking about when it comes to ancient history, and even that you can speak Old English,’ I told him.
‘Astonishing, isn’t it?’ he said, looking a little embarrassed. ‘When I left school, I took some night classes, but my old English is mostly self-taught. I’m hardly fluent. As for history, I’m no expert on ancient history. Forget about the Romans and earlier, it’s the miss-named dark ages, and the early medieval period, that fascinates me. From Arthur Pendragon to Richard Cœur de Lion is the period I’m most interested in.’
‘That would have sounded so much more impressive if you’d started with a real king instead of a legendary one,’ I teased.
‘I’m researching Robin Hood and his Merry Men,’ he reminded me. ‘But let’s not turn this day into a history lesson. I’ll come back to Castleton another day. Shall we ride on and find this walk?’
I looked up at the castle and wondered whether we should walk up and take a look at it. Then I had an idea. ‘We can come back here another day,’ I told him. ‘But let’s go to Mam Tor today.’
‘It’s a deal,’ said James happily. We remounted the bike, and he retraced the route back down to the main road.
We rode on up the valley in silence. I was trying to understand my emotions. The familiar feeling of chaos, of glimpsing the unknown from the corner of my eye, was back. It was a feeling I associated with my childhood. Now I was, supposedly, “all grown up”, yet it seemed that the unknown was still staring back at me.
James was likeable, but there was always the feeling that there was something standing at his shoulder, hiding in the shadows. I’d just invited myself out with him again. Was that really a good idea?
Was I simply using James to hurt Simon? I didn’t believe I was. Was it possible to hurt Simon? It was definitely possible to annoy him. Simply forgetting that he was the centre of the universe was enough to do that. What was I doing with James? He was nice. Nice? After what he did when we were children, how could I think he was nice? How could I have my arms around his waist? I removed them.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked me.
‘’What are we?’ I asked in reply.
‘Two old friends going out for the day,’ he said. ‘That’s enough for me, Annie. At least, for now it is. One day at a time, okay?’
‘One day at a time,’ I agreed.
Back to index
Chapter 7: SufferingSuffering
Several cars were prowling stealthily through Mam Tor car park in their desperate hunt for that rarest and most elusive of beasts, a parking space. Safe inside their metal boxes, the hunters glared as James and I, sitting astride the confidently purring Tiger, glided sedately past them. I knew that trying to take a car parking space before one of them could reach it would be an incendiary act, but fortunately it was unnecessary.
James saw a gap and took it. Squeezing the Tiger between a couple of badly parked cars, we bumped up onto the grass and rolled to a halt beneath a gnarled old beech. No car driver could possibly have parked between the tree roots where we stopped, but that didn’t stop our audience from being annoyed by the ease with which we’d found somewhere to stop.
‘You reckon it’ll be okay to leave the bike here?’ I asked as I dismounted.
James nodded. ‘No one will touch her,’ he assured me, patting the bike’s tank.
It wasn’t until I handed James my helmet that I realised I wasn’t prepared for a walk, and neither was he. We’d brought nothing with us; we had neither waterproofs nor drinking water, and neither of us was dressed for walking. As he fastened our helmets to the bike, I quickly checked my phone. The BBC weather app informed me that there was no rain forecast, and the sky would remain clear for the rest of the day. Assuring myself that it was a short and easy walk, and one I knew, I foolishly dismissed my concerns.
The first time I’d stood atop Mam Tor was during the Easter break in my first year. It had been a memorable day; it was when Brad and Corinne finally admitted what the rest of us had suspected since the Christmas holidays, they were a couple.
The stone steps leading from the car park were well-maintained and the route was impossible to miss. The path was busier than I’d seen it before, but then I’d only ever visited midweek at Easter. I should have realised that the place would be busier on a sunny Saturday in September. As we strolled up the steps, memories of my two previous visits flooded my mind and I found myself telling James.
‘The view from the top is spectacular,’ I began.
‘You’ve done the walk before?’ James asked. He sounded a little disappointed.
‘Twice,’ I told him. ‘First time was the Easter before last. It took me most of my first year, but I finally persuaded my friends to go walking in the Peak District with me. They’re all townies, so they weren’t keen. I found a bunkhouse near Edale that would take all eight of us for one night. Both Corinne and Phil have cars, at least they did, so getting there was easy. I’m not sure what we’ll do next year. Bessie–Corinne’s car–died just after we got back from our second trip. We had a wake–but that’s a different story. Where was I?
‘Easter before last.’
‘Yeah, first visit!’ I smiled at the memories. ‘It was only one night, but we had a great time and we all swore we’d do it again the following year, as a sort of C7 reunion.’
‘C7?’ James asked. ‘And who’s Phil?’ his voice was carefully neutral as he added the second question.
‘C7 was our flat in halls, in our first year,’ I explained. ‘There were eight of us; we arrived from all over the country, and were expected to share a kitchen and living area. We met for the first time when we arrived on for Freshers’ week, but we were good friends before the week was over. They’re good people, James, all of them. I was lucky! A lot of people don’t get on with their housemates, but we just jelled, all eight of us. There were four girls; me, Vicki, Corinne and Alex, and four boys; Brad, George, Phil and Alex.’
‘Two Alex’s,’ James observed.
‘Yeah. We suggested Lexi and Xander, but they weren’t having it. They were both Alex when they arrived, and neither of them was prepared to answer to anything else, so we gave up.’ I paused, and took in the view. We’d already climbed well above the trees in the car park, and the Hope Valley stretched away to the east.
‘We knew that something was up with Alex–Boy-Alex–when we came out here that first Easter,’ I continued. ‘He was really quiet, which wasn’t like him, but he wouldn’t tell us what was wrong. Turned out he hadn’t been attending his lectures, or handing his coursework in. It’s a bit sad, really. I liked him.’
‘I can tell,’ James observed.
‘Obviously, he failed his first year and that was that. He went back to Hemel Hempstead. I–we tried to keep in touch, but he stopped talking to us–ashamed, I suppose. We sent him an invitation to come up for Easter gone, but he didn’t even reply. So now there’s just one Alex.’
‘And you’re sharing a flat with Vicki. It is the same Vicki?’
‘The one and only, yeah.’ I nodded. ‘Finding a flat for seven was impossible, and when Phil’s parents bought a three-bedroom house in Crosspool, he offered the spare rooms to us first. Corinne and Alex were his first choice, and they said yes and moved in with him. Then Vicki found a two-bedroom flat, and she asked me if I’d like to move in with her. I think Corinne would have been her first choice, but I was her only option, really. Brad and George were out because her parents are really old-fashioned. They were a bit freaked about the fact that she was in mixed accommodation in first year, even though our bedrooms all had locks on their doors. Of course Brad and George couldn’t get their act together–idiots–so they finally ended up moving in with a couple of George’s friends from his climate studies course. But even though we don’t live together any longer, we’re still C7.’
‘So you still see them all?’ James asked as we continued our ascent. ‘Apart from this Alex bloke, of course.’
‘Yeah,’ I paused and let the guilt wash over me. ‘Well, yes and no. I’ve been ignoring them a lot over the last year, but that’s going to change. I was at my first Takeaway Thursday in months last week. It’s a C7 tradition, and I’m not going to miss another one!’
‘Good for you,’ James told me.
A sheep wandered across the path ahead of us, making me smile at another memory. ‘Until I dragged them out here, that first Easter, Phil and Vicki had never seen one of those,’ I observed, pointing at the sheep. ‘Vicki was a bit freaked by the fact that there wasn’t a fence between us and it. She asked what it was, and if it was dangerous.’
‘No.’ James shook his head in disbelief.
‘It’s true,’ I said. ‘Of course, the others laughed at her and told her it was only a sheep. Except me, of course, I said it was a Derbyshire Gritstone, so they started to take the piss out of me instead.’
‘Your granddad kept sheep,’ James remembered.
‘Yeah, but law students aren’t supposed to be able to tell the difference between a Cheviot and a Border Leicester. They all think I’m crazy.’ I rotated my forefinger next to my temple.
‘Everyone thinks I’m crazy, too,’ James told me.
‘We came back here Easter just gone. Well, like I said, everyone but Boy-Alex did. I booked two nights, not one, and on our final night we got rather drunk, and promised each other that we’d do it again next year.’ As I spoke, I thought back to the conversation at Easter. ‘I said that someone else should organise it,’ I admitted guiltily, losing myself in memories.
We were sitting in the bunkhouse on our second night; we’d started on beer, gone through three bottles of Chilean Merlot (it was on special offer, three-for-two), and bottle of Laphroaig. We’d finally moved on to George’s Mezcal. He’d even brought fresh oranges and sal de gusano so that we could do the thing properly.
We’d spent the entire day in the hills, and come back to one of Vicki’s fabulous home-made curries. Everyone was full and happy, and really enthusiastic about making the bunkhouse trip an annual thing. Everyone, that was, except me. I’d been reluctant to commit. Despite the fact that I’d organised our trip, I’d only attended because Simon was going to Kos with his friends.
Because Simon was going to Kos with his friends!
I was suddenly furious with myself. While I had been vacillating and obfuscating in an attempt to postpone any decision about attendance the following year, Simon had–I now knew–been out on the pull in Kos. Not only had he been unfaithful, but when he’d got back he’d been paranoid about what I’d been doing. At the time I’d thought his jealousy was cute! I’d even reassured him, ‘Brad’s with Corinne, Phil is gay, and George? Nice guy, but there’s no chance! He’s only two inches taller than Vicki.’ I’d told him. Why had I seen his questions as flattering? Why hadn’t I realised that the reason he didn’t trust me because he assumed that I would have taken the opportunity to play away, like he had?
‘Fuck,’ I said. My heart was racing, and my right foot was beginning to hurt; I slowed down to my normal pace.
My annoyance had made me fall silent and accelerate. I was frowning, and pushing myself again. Like my visit to the pool, it was as if I was trying to physically distance myself from the past. James had said nothing. He’d simply kept up with me, let me walk off my rage. Glancing at him, I caught his expression of concern.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Annie’s being radgie again.’
‘Something set you off,’ he observed quietly. ‘You just stopped talking, and then you were off like a hare. You frightened that Gritstone sheep.’ He smiled. ‘I don’t think it was anything I did, not this time.’
‘Not this time,’ I agreed.
‘Whatever it was, you don’t have to tell me, Annie, not if you don’t want to.’
That was all the encouragement I needed. I stopped, faced him, and began another epic and very sweary rant about my ex. James simply listened, and nodded in understanding. When I finally ran out of breath, he took my hand and gave it a sympathetic squeeze.
‘Feeling better?’ he asked.
‘Grand, so, are we going to conquer Everest or not?’ He pointed at the summit, which was just visible ahead of us.
We continued our climb in silence and had almost reached the top when I realised that James and I were still holding hands. I shook myself free of him, and then wished I hadn’t.
Although the trig point was still a few hundred metres away, we were already surrounded by the view. Looking round, my mind flashed back even further into the past, to Drakeshaugh, to my first ascent of the Drakestone.
Al and Rosie were bigger than me and had chosen the route; I’d followed them closely. James and Henry, who were behind me helping Lilyloo and Hugo, were shouting encouragement to me. I’d made it almost all of the way to the top before I got stuck. Al lay down on the top and held out his hand for me, but I refused it.
‘Let Al help you, Annie,’ Henry ordered.
‘Gonna do it myself!’ I shouted back stubbornly.
Whatever Henry had been going to say was cut off by James. ‘Go left, Annie, onto that little ledge,’ he suggested. ‘It’s easier to get to the top from there.’
It was good advice. The handholds were better, and the rock less vertical. Within moments I was pulling myself to my feet alongside Al and Rosie.
‘Yeah!’ I yelled ‘Done it, all by myself. I can see for miles!’
Henry, James, Lily, and Hugo soon joined us at the top. Hugo allowed himself to be helped up by Al but Lily, like me, insisted on making it up unaided.
‘We’ve conquered Everest!’ James announced.
‘Ev’rest?’ Lily asked.
‘Biggest mountain inna world,’ Henry said.
‘Highest.’ Rosie corrected him.
‘Same thing,’ Henry said.
‘No...’ Rosie began. We all recognised the signs.
‘It doesn’t matter, Rosie,’ said Al, hastily cutting off his cousin before she could laboriously explain the difference between big and high. ‘Where’s the flag?’
‘Here.’ Henry pulled the small flag, which he’d wrapped around its plastic pole from his belt. ‘The Drakestone Seven have conquered the stone! Where can I put it?’ He looked around.
We eventually settled on forcing the stick into a narrow crack. It wouldn’t stay in place, but by carefully scraping up moss and grit, we managed to make it stand almost upright.
‘Great view,’ James observed, as we approached the crowded summit.
The stone slabs made the trail simple for everyone, especially city-folk like my first-year flatmates. As I looked around I realised that although some of the people at the summit wore hiking gear, the majority did not. We didn’t look out of place. Happy, I looked out across the hills and smiled. There’s something special about reaching the top, and in that moment all was right with the world.
‘It is,’ I agreed. ‘We’ve conquered Everest, Jamie, I hope you remembered to bring the flag.’
His puzzled expression lasted no more than a second. Shaking his head, he laughed. ‘The conquest of the Drakestone!’ he said. ‘Flag bearing is a job for one of the Charltons. They’re the Northumbrians, I’m just an interloper.’
‘Good excuse,’ I told him.
The panorama from Mam Tor is, I’ll admit, one of the finest in the Peak District. As we both stared off into the distance, I leant into him; he leant back to create a mutual support.
Shoulder to shoulder we took in the view, and I forgot about everything else. I was at the peak, my problems, like the world around, were beneath me. I looked out over the hills and valleys of England’s green and pleasant land. I heard the murmurs of other walkers, the baaing of the sheep, and James’ steady breathing. I felt his shoulder against mine as we supported each other without holding each other. I smelled the air, fresh and sweet, rendered more interesting by the faintest whiff of James’ leather jacket.
James and I stood silently in one of those forevers that only lasts an instant. Millennia, or microseconds, later, it ended.
As I came out of my reverie I spotted Peveril Castle on a distant hillside, and pointed it out. After several minutes wandering around the top, looking at the view, we continued our walk, heading down the curving sweep of the ridge leading to Hollins Cross. My problems started when we were about halfway along. I could feel the ball of my right foot rubbing inside my boot, but there was nothing I could do about it.
We weren’t walking quickly, and we made frequent stops to take in the view, so I managed to hide my increasing discomfort from James. Upon reaching Hollins Cross we stood in the saddle between the hills and took in the view to the west. It was our last look in that direction, the view was lost when we turned east and headed down from the ridge towards Blue John cavern. Descending was a lot worse for my foot, but by staying slightly behind James, I managed to conceal my worsening limp for a good part of the walk. When we reached the road leading to Treak Cliff Cavern, he spotted it.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.
‘Nothing, I’m fine,’ I lied.
He looked down at my right foot, stared into my face, and shook his head. ‘What is it?’ he asked. ‘Blister?’
I reluctantly nodded an admission. I’d worn my riding boots to go walking. I’d known before we set off that I wasn’t dressed for walking; it was a stupid thing to have done, and I was paying the price.
‘How bad is it?’
‘It’s sore,’ I admitted. ‘But I’ll be okay. It’s my fault. I knew we were going for a walk. Instead of wearing these, I should’ve dug out some walking socks and my Scarpa’s.’ As I spoke, another realisation hit me, and my face fell.
‘You can’t, because you left your boots at Lintzgarth, because he was never interested in walking anywhere,’ James guessed.
He was right, but I didn’t confirm it. There was a serious expression on his face as he stared down at me. Somehow, he managed to make me expect a Simon-like lecture; instead he confounded me with pure James lunacy.
‘How’s the bold ‘splorers going to get back to safety, now that one of their number is grievous injured?’ he asked, worriedly running his hand through his tousled hair. ‘I know! I’ll make a stretcher out of bits of wood and some rope, and drag you back just like we did with Hugo.’
‘One, that was a game, and two, we don’t have any rope, or wood,’ I told him, laughing at another memory.
‘True,’ he admitted. ‘You’re forcing me to be practical, Annie. How dare you!’
‘Easily,’ I said. ‘That was always my job, someone had to keep you grounded–to floor you by pointing out the flaws in your plans. You and Henry both. Otherwise you’d have floated off and never been seen again.’
It was James’ turn to laugh. For an instant I thought he was going to hug me; he didn’t.
‘We’re going that way.’ I returned to being practical and pointed at a gate. ‘It used to be a road, but a landslip closed it years ago. It’s not bad walking. I can manage, honest.’
Looking at me in concern, he shook his head in disbelief. Despite everything that had just happened, I still expected him to lecture me. He didn’t; he said nothing, simply held out his hand. I took it and we set off. James matched his stride with mine.
We continued in silence. He was looking down, watching me walk. I brought my blistered foot forwards, and as it touched the ground his foot landed next to it, his hand tightened on mine, and he tensed his arm to take my weight.
As we walked along the cracked tarmac, I snuck an occasional glance at him. He seemed deep in thought, so I didn’t disturb him. I considered asking him what he was thinking about, but I didn’t want a flippant answer, so I said nothing. I tried to ignore the pain, which was now like broken glass in my boot. Every step was painful; gritting my teeth, I pushed on.
We had almost reached the next gate when the sun broke free of the clouds. In the sudden brightness James’ hair caught fire, looking much more ginger than it actually was; I stared. Sensing my attention, he lifted his head to look at me, a dazzling grin splitting his face. I was lost for a moment in the deep creases at the side of his mouth. James’ grin was his essence; those freckle-filled creases, his wide mouth and gleaming teeth–they were the image of him I’d carried with me all my life.
I turned my head away, aware that he was still looking at me. Refusing to return his gaze, I thought back to the evening James had reappeared in my life. “Good-looking, quick-witted, not quite ginger, with nice eyes and an inflated sense of his own importance,” that’s how I’d described him to Vicki. It was all true, but I’d forgotten how kind he could be. That was the moment I realised that the incident on my birthday was the only time I could remember that he’d ever really hurt me, either physically or mentally. Yes, there had been a lot of teasing, but that had been common between all of us.
‘Okay?’ he asked me.
‘Fine,’ I lied as the glass splinters shot up my leg.
‘There’s a seat,’ he observed as he opened the gate for us and ushered me through. It was no more than ten metres away, and it looked very inviting.
As I collapsed down onto the bench, I looked back up at the rolling green ridge and shook my head in annoyance at my own stupidity. We were on the final section of what should have been an easy walk, and I was the one who’d had to stop.
‘Take the boot off,’ James suggested. ‘I’ll take a look at your foot for you.’
‘I’ve heard about people like you,’ I told him, trying to take my mind from the pain. ‘You’re one of those foot fetishists! This was all part of your evil plan! You offer to take a girl out on your motorbike, and then on a long walk, but you don’t bother to tell her that the riding boots she’s wearing will be great for the bike ride, but shite for the walk. You planned this! You just want to catch a glimpse of my naked foot!’
‘You’ve already shown me your naked, nude, bare, and completely unclad feet.’ He pantomimed a scandalised expression. ‘They were on display, along with your many other charms, when I arrived at your flat. To be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention to them. I was too busy admiring your muscles.’
‘You were looking at my arse, you lech; I saw you.’
‘I was assessing the power in your gluteus maximuses ... or should that be gluteus maximi?’ he asked, failing to hide his grin. ‘I wanted to be certain that they were up to the task of walking.’
‘Assessing my glutes, that’s a good one, Jamie.’ I lifted my right foot, stretched out my leg, and rested my heel on a rock.
‘You were the one flaunting yourself,’ he said. ‘If you didn’t want me to look at your buttocks, you shouldn’t have been prancing about the house in your flimsy flouncy jim-jams like a… like a…’
‘Flimsy jim-jam flouncer?’ I suggested as he floundered. ‘You didn’t know where you were going with that one, did you?’ Now that the pressure was off my foot, my moodiness had again vanished. We grinned at each other.
‘I very rarely know where I’m going,’ he admitted, continuing the banter. ‘But I am a little concerned about your sleeping habits. Does Hen know that you don’t bother to get up and dressed until the afternoon? Perhaps I should tell him.’
‘I don’t spend every day flouncing about in my jim-jams, Jimmy-James.’ That one got a hearty chuckle from him. ‘I didn’t get dressed because I was up early, working on my thesis. Time just went on. As for Henry, he knows nothing, and you’re not going to tell him.’
As I spoke, my foot finally reacted to the fact that I’d taken the pressure off it by shooting fire up my calf. When I looked down, my clothes caught my eye. There was a tear near the hem of the check shirt I was wearing, and my red jeans were curry-stained. In my haste to get dressed, I hadn’t noticed. My preparation for James had been precisely nothing. I’d met him in my pyjamas, thrown on some old clothes, and put on a little lippy. I hadn’t even showered.
I remembered my first date with Simon. He’d told me that he would take me out to a very expensive restaurant in the city centre. I’d spent all afternoon trying to decide what to wear, and bought myself a new posh frock for the occasion. I’d then showered, and made myself up to the nines; I’d spent two hours getting ready for Simon, and likely less than two minutes getting ready for James. Perhaps I simply didn’t care enough to bother.
‘I bet Hen knows a lot more than you think he does,’ James continued, apparently oblivious to my thoughts. ‘Lily thinks I don’t know what she’s up to, but she’s wrong.’ He sat next to me, and stared up at Mam Tor. ‘You told Hen about us, haven’t you?’
‘Not exactly,’ I admitted. ‘He found out from my profile. He phoned me.’
‘And that’s why I don’t do social media,’ James shook his head. ‘Why should I let everyone in the word know what an idiot I am? Anyone I meet will find out soon enough! When you spoke to Hen on the phone, told him about me, was he okay about me–seeing–you?’
‘Bloody hell, James! You’re as bad as Vicki! That’s just what she said after he’d phoned. “What does your brother think? Is he worried? Is he coming down to see you?” It’s my life, and what I do is none of Henry’s business! You don’t need my brother’s permission to ask me out! What century are you living in?’
‘I know I don’t need it,’ said James dismissively. ‘But I’m a big brother, too, and we big brothers have to stick together.’ He sounded serious.
‘I’ve never heard such a load of...’
‘He was my best friend for years, Annie,’ said James quietly. It was only then I realised that he wasn’t joking. ‘I’d like him to be okay about us hanging out together. What did Hen say when you started going out with...?’
‘It was hate at first sight,’ I admitted. ‘And it was mutual. Simon told me that Hen was a thick Geordie with no ambition, and Hen told me that Simon was a nasty, controlling, egotistical, self-centred...’ I paused in mid-flow, suddenly aware how accurate my brother’s assessment had been.
James had looked smug when I’d started my reply. By the time realisation had tongue-tied me, he was so full of himself I thought he’d explode.
‘So, Henry told you Simon was no good,’ said James, nodding knowledgably. ‘And he was right.’
‘Oh fuck off,’ I told him.
He sighed. ‘Merlin, you really hate being proved wrong, don’t you? You always did.’
‘What did you just say?’
‘I politely observed that you hate being proved wrong,’ he said. I could hear the panic in his voice.
‘You said Merlin!’ I told him. ‘I’ve heard it before, too. You used to say it when we were little. You said Merlin when other people would say crikey, or blimey, or bloody hell, or...’
‘It’s a lot less offensive than the words you use,’ he told me. ‘Would you rather I said “fucking hell, you hate being proved wrong?” Is that better?’
‘I suppose not,’ I admitted, ‘but–Merlin–it’s such a strange word to use.’
‘I’m a strange man from a strange family,’ he said. He turned away from me, and stared down the valley. ‘I hate secrets.’
‘I told you when we were at Little John’s grave,’ I reminded him. ‘You don’t need to keep me secret, you can tell Rosie and the others about me.’
‘Yeah,’ he said quietly. There was something wistful, or regretful, in his tone and I was suddenly uncertain whether that was the secret he was talking about.
Turning back to face me, he asked, ‘Are you going to take that boot off, or not?’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
The pressure on the ball of my foot had eased the moment I’d lifted my foot from the ground, but the pain hadn’t gone. I knew that continuing our walk would be painful unless I did something to ease it. As I eased the boot off I had an idea, and then I remembered that I’d put on a pair of “Thunderbirds Are Go!” socks.
‘Nice,’ James said when he saw them.
‘Scott Tracey — my ideal man,’ I told him as I carefully pulled off the sock. As he moved forwards to look at the sole of my foot, I threw the sock at him. He pretended to fumble the catch and flicked the sock into his face. Gasping, he swayed backwards, holding his nose and holding the sock out at arm’s length.
‘Stinky,’ he said.
‘Idiot,’ I replied.
‘I remember this show, we used to watch it at your place, at Lintzgarth.’ There was wistful longing in his voice as he named my parent’s house. ‘Scott isn’t a real person, he’s an animation.’
‘Like I said, my ideal man,’ I told him.
‘Fair enough,’ he said with a smile. ‘I can see where you’re coming from. There was a girl...’
‘Kayo’ I told him. ‘Fancy her, did you?’ He laughed.
Leaning forwards, I examined my blister. It was massive, covering the entire ball of my foot, and it was very painful to the touch. He hunkered down to take a look himself.
‘At least there’s no blood,’ I said, making a decision. ‘I’m going to burst it.’
‘With what?’ he asked.
I unfastened a button, reached inside my shirt, and pulled on the silver chain I wore, lifting the family heirloom from its resting place between my breasts. I was certain James would say something rude, but he didn’t. I looked up to see him staring. My foot throbbed, and I snapped.
‘They’re called tits, half the population has them,’ I said sarcastically, pulling my shirt open wider so that he could see my bra.
‘I’ve already seen ‘em,’ he told me. ‘You must’ve realised that they were almost hanging out when you leant over the bannister at your flat. That’s not what I was looking at, Annie, but if you’re offering.’
He made a point of looking at my chest, and that was when I realised that he was telling the truth. He’d been focussing on the silver cylinder and the bloodstone, clasped in a silver claw, which dangled from its base.
‘Where did you get that?’ he asked.
‘Mum,’ I said. ‘She gave it to me when… well… I was twelve at the time. It’s been in the family forever. If I have a daughter, it will go to her when she hits puberty. Mum made me promise, because that’s what happens, it always has and it always will.’
‘Since when?’ he asked.
‘Forever, at least that’s what Granny Wake told me that her Grandma had told her. Why?’
Closing my shirt, I reached around the back of my neck and unclasped the silver chain. The chain is relatively new. According to Grandma Wake the bloodstone claw–as she calls it–had been on a worn old leather shoelace when she received it. My granddad bought her the silver chain.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, puzzled. ‘Just a feeling. It certainly looks very old.’ He moved forward to get a closer look and held out his hand.
I shook my head. ‘Look, don’t touch,’ I told him, holding it up for him to examine.
I watched as James stared at it. It’s an unusual piece of jewellery. Even Simon had been curious about it when he’d seen it. He’d asked what it was worth; I had no idea, of course.
The cylinder is silver, about three centimetres long, and about the same diameter as a Bic ballpoint. It has Celtic-looking carvings on it, but they’re so worn that they’re difficult to see. At one end of the cylinder there’s a loop for the chain to pass through; the other end is a silver claw grasps a bloodstone. From the size and shape of the talons, three forward, one to the rear, the claw seems to be modelled on a bird of prey. The story is that it’s a merlin’s claw.
‘Celtic,’ James observed, he squinted, ‘And… Does it open?’
‘Clever, Jamie,’ I said, unscrewing the cylinder to reveal its contents.
‘Bronze inside the silver, and the bronze looks even older.’ James was watching like a hawk. ‘What is that?’
‘We call it the talon,’ I said. ‘It’s really sharp.’ I jabbed my blister with it. The pressure on my foot was released, and fluid ran down my foot.
‘I hope that was clean,’ James said as I screwed the cylinder back together.
‘So do I,’ I admitted.
The pressure on my foot eased, and the pain seemed to drain away with the fluid. Confident that I’d made the right decision, I refastened the chain and dropped the bloodstone claw back inside my shirt. I shook my chest to get the claw back into its resting place. James watched in silence. When I held out my hand, he gave me my sock back.
‘You may want to avert your gaze for this next bit.’ I warned him.
‘You’ve already flashed your boobs at me. What on earth are you going to do next?’ he asked.
‘D’you really want to know?’ I asked.
‘Yes.’ He stared at me.
‘Okay.’ I pulled a sanitary pad from my pocket and waved it in front of his face. ‘They’re clean, absorbent, and padded. D’you need me to explain why I’m carrying them around?’
I expected him to pull a face. He was surprised, but not as grossed out as I’d expected. In fact, he looked impressed. ‘You’re a genius, Annie, a resourceful genius,’ he said admiringly as I carefully attached a pad to the sole of my foot and carefully pulled on my sock. Grunting, I eased my foot back into my boot and stood.
‘Well?’ he asked.
‘Better,’ I said. ‘It’s still sore, but nowhere as bad as it was. Let’s get back to the bike. You can take me home.’
‘I thought we might go out for a meal tonight.’ James sounded disappointed.
‘Can you afford it?’ I asked.
He looked a little guilty.
‘Neither can I,’ I told him firmly. ‘We’ll eat at the flat.’ I pulled out my phone.
‘What’re you doing?’ he asked.
‘Texting Vicki. She makes a mean curry. I’ll pay for the ingredients, and help when we get back.’
‘I’ll go halfies,’ James offered.
‘Sent! We’ll talk about money when we get back. Now give me your hand, my foot feels better, but this last bit will be a lot easier with your support.’
He did as I asked.
It took Vicki fifteen minutes to get back to me, by which time we were on the final leg of the walk.
‘We need to stop somewhere and buy coconut milk, onions, and lamb,’ I told James after checking Vicki’s text. ‘We’ll find a shop on our way back to the flat.’
Back to index
Chapter 8: FriendsFriends
The ride back from Mam Tor was exhilarating, James barely slowed for the bends. As we raced homewards, our knees almost touched the tarmac on the tightest turns.
I knew that my journey into the future had started; the combination of fresh air and James had cleared my mind. The excitement of the ride brought with it freedom from my recent past.
As we hurtled along, inches above the road, my mind was a feather of ecstasy whirling and swirling through the air. Blown along by the winds of happiness, I was unrestricted, unbound; I could float into a future where no one’s wishes would restrict my freedom. By the time we roared back into the outskirts of Sheffield, I had my arms resting lightly on James’ ribs, and I was singing.
‘What’s Chatteris if you’re not there? What’s Chatteris if you’re not there? I may as well be in Ely or St Ives…’ I concluded as we entered the outskirts of the city.
‘Is that supposed to be a love song?’ James asked.
‘I’m not serenading you,’ I teased. ‘I’m singing because I’m happy.’
‘Good!’ he told me approvingly. ‘You know some strange songs, Annie. That’s another one I’ve never heard before.’
‘It was one of Dad’s favourites, so it’s probably at least as old as me,’ I said. ‘It’s one of several he played all the time, although usually only when Mum was out. She wasn’t keen, but I seem to have absorbed a lot of them.’
‘You’ve got a good voice,’ he said admiringly. I slid my arms up his chest and hugged him. For good measure, I squeezed his buttocks between my thighs.
‘Thanks, Jamie. Great day,’ I said.
‘Despite the foot?’ he asked.
I had to think before I answered. The floating feather of my mind shot an enquiry to my foot and, after some time, was told that there wasn’t even a twinge of pain. ‘Foot’s forgotten,’ I assured him.
We hit traffic and slowed down to a crawl. As the bike slowed, the winds of happiness seemed to drop, and my mind began to prepare me for my return to earth.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Are you sure we aren’t imposing on Vicki?’
‘She’ll be fine, she never complains about cooking; she rarely complains about anything,’ I assured him. Not wanting to admit that I’d forgotten about shopping for food, I directed James to the shops on Fulwood Road.
There was nowhere to park the Tiger, so I suggested that James stay outside while I dashed into Morrison’s. He agreed, but he wouldn’t let me go until he’d forced some cash on me. As I entered the store, I took the opportunity to check my phone and found another text from Vicki: Ring me when you get the chance. I hit the call button while picking up a basket. Vicki answered almost immediately.
‘Where are you?’ she asked.
‘Fulwood Road, we won’t be long,’ I said. ‘Is there something wrong?’
‘No, nothing.’ She sounded very hesitant, so I knew she wasn’t telling me everything.
‘Simon?’ I asked.
‘No, nothing like that,’ she assured me. ‘It’s just… well… I said lamb, but it’s expensive, and besides not everyone likes lamb. Chicken will do, or fish.’
‘I’m pretty sure that James will eat lamb–he didn’t complain when I mentioned it,’ I said. ‘Don’t be such a worrier.’ While I was talking, I picked up a net of half-a-dozen onions and dropped them into the basket.
‘Sorry, that’s all I wanted, really. I shouldn’t have bothered you. You’ll be here in ten minutes or so?’
‘Maybe quarter-of-an-hour, depending on the queue at the tills.’
‘Great, thanks for letting me know. I’ll put the rice in to soak. Shall I put the kettle on?’
‘Not until we arrive. You’re a wonder, Vicki,’ I told her. ‘See you soon.’
For the final leg of our journey, I held my bag of groceries in one hand and held onto James with the other. Despite being on the bike, reality was returning. After hurtling through the countryside, creeping slowly through the busy streets was a definite return to the ordinary.
When we turned into the street where I lived, I realised the reason for Vicki’s message. Corinne, Alex, and George were sitting on the wall outside my flat. It appeared, from the way they were greeting each other, that they’d just arrived.
‘You’ve met Corinne–the others are Alex and George.’ I told James.
‘Should I be worried?’ James asked as he let go of the throttle. ‘George looks pretty tough.’
I laughed. George is a lovely guy, but only Vicki is smaller than he is, and the only physically impressive thing about him is his beard. As James throttled back and rolled the bike to a halt, I stood up on the footpegs and waved to my friends. We hadn’t quite stopped, and George looked terrified by my action.
Trusting James to keep the bike stable, I stepped off the bike just before he stopped. As he put his feet down and switched off the engine, I unclipped my helmet and handed it to him. He took it without a word. Three steps took me to my former flatmates.
‘How dost thou, sweet comrades?’ I asked, taking a bow.
My friends smiled. As they chorused their hellos in suitably Shakespearean terms, I heard the bike-stand click into place behind me. The three pairs of eyes in front of me moved away from my face to gaze at a point over my shoulder, doubtless waiting for James to remove his helmet and reveal himself. Alex’s eyes widened, while George frowned.
‘Do I bow too?’ James asked as he stepped alongside me.
‘Of course not,’ I told him. ‘You have to curtsey.’
He did, and my friends applauded.
‘This is Alex and George; you’ve already met Corinne,’ I gestured flamboyantly as I performed the introductions. Corinne and Alex were smiling, but George still looked a little wary. ‘This is my friend, James Sirius Potter, motorcyclist, amateur historian, ne’er-do-well, smart-arse, and–in his early years–pirate captain, astronaut, wizard, explorer, and secret agent.’
‘In my early years?’ James asked me, a wicked gleam in his eyes. ‘What makes you think I’ve stopped? Hello George. Hello again, Corinne. Hello Alex.’ He held out a hand to each of them in turn. George’s rather reluctantly proffered hand, he shook, but when he took Corinne’s, he lifted it to his lips and kissed it.
‘Good now, good sir!’ Corinne exclaimed. Feigning a swoon, she fanned her face with her unkissed hand.
When he took Alex’s hand and lifted it, she calmly accepted the kiss.
‘So,’ I said, folding my arms and staring at them. ‘Vicki blabbed, did she?’
‘Don’t blame her, Anna,’ Corinne begged. ‘I ran into her in the library a couple of hours ago and asked how you were. She said that you and James had gone off on a motorbike, so I asked her to text me the minute you got back. She did better than that. We wanted to make sure you arrived home safely.’
‘A likely story,’ I said, giving James a sideways glance.
‘Nothing to do with him,’ Corinne protested.
‘She’s totally lying, of course. These are Corrine’s texts,’ George told me. Lifting his phone, he read, ‘Ran into Vicki in the IC–Anna’s gone out with James, on a motorbike! She’s asked Vicki to cook for them. Made Vicki promise to let me know when they get back. Interested in seeing what he looks like? Then, the minutes ago, she sent this one: they’ll be back in ten minutes.’
Corrine gave an unrepentant shrug.
‘Phil’s not here because he’s working,’ Alex said.
‘What about Brad?’ James asked.
‘Pub, watching the footie,’ I guessed. ‘He’s a Toffee man.’
James looked at me as if I were mad.
‘The Toffees–Everton,’ I told him.
‘Aren’t you more important than a football match?’ James asked me.
‘I bloody hope not,’ Corinne told him, ‘because I’m not.’ She turned to me. ‘So?’ She glanced pointedly at James as she asked the question.
‘So what?’ I asked.
‘Just friends, honest, that’s what you told me and Brad the other day,’ said Corinne. ‘And then you go off on a motorbike with him.’
‘I’ve gone off in a car with you lot loads of times,’ I reminded her. ‘What’s the difference?’
‘Intention,’ Alex said promptly. ‘What are your intentions, Anna? Your friends want to know.’
‘Ask James what his intentions are. Find out all his secrets, and then tell me,’ I told her. Holding up the plastic bag, I used it to make my escape. ‘I’m going to deliver these to Vicki.’ I dashed into the flat, leaving James to the mercy of my friends.
I was happy when I ran up the stairs, but when I entered the kitchen, Vicki’s worried expression blew the last vestiges of the elation of the ride from me. Her mortar, full of herbs and spices, was on the bench alongside her. The crimson and amber dust on the pestle she held in her hand showed she’d already started working on the meal.
‘Sorry,’ she began.
Her apprehension shone out from her face like a beacon. She was a rabbit in the headlights, expecting me to be angry, to be moody, simply because she’d told Corinne where I was. I opened my mouth to tease her, but James words as we approached the shops echoed in my mind. ‘Are you sure we aren’t imposing on Vicki?’ They were followed by a realisation. Corinne had seen Vicki in the library; she’d been working, and had come home just to make us a meal.
As I stood, mouth open, my actions over the past few months flooded my mind. I remembered taking advantage of my flatmate’s good nature many times. Sometimes–but not often–it was at Simon’s bidding. The more I thought, the more the number increased. My reply to James’ question had been wrong. We were imposing on Vicki; I’d been imposing on her for months.
‘I can be a bossy bitch, at times, can’t I?’ I asked her regretfully. Vicki’s surprise and relief was palpable, and that only made me feel worse. ‘There’s no need to say sorry, Vicki, I should be the one apologising. I’m sorry. I simply expect you to do stuff for me, and I shouldn’t.’
‘It’s okay,’ Vicki told me awkwardly. ‘You don’t mean to do it. You’re just... I mean…’
‘I’m mean,’ I admitted. Her protests about the way I’d turned her words around were lost, because I pulled her into a hug. I’m almost a head taller than she is, so there wasn’t much she could do about it. ‘I am sorry, Vicki. You were at the library, working, weren’t you?’
‘It’s okay,’ she began, returning the hug.
‘No, it isn’t,’ I told her. ‘You’re way too nice to me. You’re way too nice to everyone. It’s time you got something in return; it’s time I treated you. I’ll make us Sunday dinner tomorrow. Roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, the works. It’ll be my treat.’
‘That would be nice,’ she said. ‘But you…’
She got no further because the Tiger roared into life. Worried that James was fleeing from my friends, I released her. We both dashed across to the kitchen window. Alex was sitting astride James’ bike, turning the throttle. James was frantically indicating that she should ease off. As she did, James looked up and saw me peering from the window.
‘Me,’ he mouthed, ‘And Alex,’ he pointed at her. ‘Bike,’ he pointed again, this time at the Tiger whose roar had become a purr. ‘Around the block.’ He drew a square in the air with his finger. ‘See you soon, okay?’ He gave me a hopeful thumbs-up.
‘What was all that about?’ Vicki asked worriedly. ‘Is he going off with Alex?’
I’d thought it was obvious, but Vicki seemed to have missed something. As I gave James the thumbs-up, I turned to Vicki. ‘He’s taking Alex once around the block on the bike,’ I told her. ‘You know what she’s like, she probably asked him.’
‘Hmm.’ Vicki looked worried.
Watching James hand Alex my helmet, I suffered a sudden surge of jealousy. The logical part of my brain tried to remind me that it wasn’t actually my helmet; it was James’ spare. That didn’t console me. I watched as Alex clumsily clambered onto the pillion seat.
‘She doesn’t even know how to get on a bike properly,’ I told Vicki as James sat down–between her legs, damn it. He’s far from the first man she’s wrapped her legs around, the green-eyed monster told me. Fortunately, before the monster could whisper any more of its paranoia there were footsteps on our stairs.
‘He won’t talk. Refused to say anything unless we had a go on the bike,’ Corinne told me. ‘I think he thought we’d say no. George is next.’
‘Yeah!’ From his tone, it sounded to me like George had been bullied into it by Alex and Corinne.
‘Then me, and finally Vicki,’ Corinne added.
‘Me?’ Vicki’s exclamation could have shattered glass, and her head was shaking so rapidly it seemed to be in danger of falling off. ‘No, no!’
‘That’s the deal,’ Corinne said. ‘Don’t worry, Vicki; Anna’s James will look after you.’
‘Don’t worry?’ Vicki squeaked.
‘He’s not my James,’ I added.
‘Oh yes he is,’ Corinne told me. ‘I watched him watching you when we were in Ticino’s, and he’s even worse today. He’s a desperate little puppy craving your attention. Isn’t he, Georgie?’
George reluctantly grunted his agreement. ‘But he’s unemployed. He must be skint! How can he afford that bike? There’s something not right.’
‘You’re only jealous, George,’ said Corinne, winking at me.
George has always been very protective of us. It’s sweet, but a little annoying, particularly for Alex.
‘Not jealous, concerned!’ George grumbled. ‘Let’s face it, Simon was...’
‘A few days ago I’d have enjoyed listening to you vilifying Simon, George,’ I said. ‘But right now, I simply want to forget him, okay?’
‘How does she do it?’ Corinne asked Vicki. ‘I mean look at her! Her roots are showing, her hair needs a good wash, she’s dressed like a scruff, and she’s one of the rudest people I know! How the hell do you live with her, Vicki?’
‘She’s nice.’ Vicki’s attempt to interject was steamrollered back into silence.
‘Yet, despite this, she has more suitors than the Bennett sisters!’ Corinne was on a roll. ‘How the hell does she manage to get a steady stream of blokes following her around with their tongues hanging out? It’s not like she’s some supermodel.’
I could see Vicki blanching as Corrine continued to push my buttons.
‘She splits up with the richest bloke in our year, and less than a day later she scores with an eminently shaggable hunk. How old is he, by the way?’
‘Twenty-two,’ I said. ‘And does Brad know you think he’s shaggable?’
‘Those were Alex’s words, not mine,’ Corinne said. She gave me a wicked grin. ‘So, really, that doesn’t mean much, does it? You know what she’s like–shaggable is not a high bar for Alex. Who knows what part of James she’s hanging onto.’
‘How d’you know he’s twenty-two?’ Vicki asked in an attempt to divert the conversation away from Corinne’s attempts to bait me.
‘He’ll be twenty-three next month,’ I said, gratefully taking the escape route Vicki offered. ‘His birthday is–I know that he’s exactly four weeks older than Henry–I can’t remember the date.’
‘It’ll be the eighth of October,’ Vicki said.
‘Little Vicki,’ Corinne turned from me and pounced. ‘It’s always the quiet ones! How on earth do you know that? We all know you’re good at maths, but working that out so quickly means you know when Anna’s brother’s birthday is! How? Why? Does little Vicki fancy him?’
‘Um, Er,’ Vicki floundered, and looked at me for help.
I didn’t want to let her down, but it took me a moment, which Corinne used to chant, ‘Vicki fancies Anna’s brother, Vicki fancies Anna’s brother.’
Vicki didn’t help her situation by saying, ‘His name is Henry, and his birthday...’
‘Is it a lurve so twue, Vicki?’ Corinne teased. Vicki fell silent again. It was so easy for Corinne to talk over her. Fortunately, I had realised how Vicki knew.
‘Henry’s birthday is Guy Fawkes night,’ I said to Corinne. ‘I mention it every year. He always boasts that the whole country celebrates his birthday with fireworks. You might have forgotten, but Vicki didn’t, did you?’
‘No,’ Vicki told me gratefully.
‘Vicki pays attention, Corinne, that’s all there is to it.’ I stared hard at Corinne, trying to let her know that she was upsetting Vicki. It seemed to work.
‘Sorry, Vicki,’ she said. ‘Ginger James should be back any minute now, unless Alex has dragged him to her boudoir. Shall we all go outside and see?’
‘You go,’ I said. ‘I’m going grab a quick shower while I have the chance.’
‘Did I get to you, too?’ asked Corinne.
‘A bit,’ I admitted.
‘Sorry,’ Corinne seemed a little surprised. ‘I was only teasing. You and James must be more serious than I thought. What do you think, George? You’ve been uncharacteristically quiet.’
‘Too much oestrogen in the atmosphere,’ he said calmly. ‘No Brad, no Phil, I’m well and truly outnumbered.’
‘You count Phil as one of the blokes, do you?’ Corinne teased as she led them from the kitchen.
Vicki was hanging back, and I knew why.
‘If you’re worried about going on the bike, tell James, and tell him I said he has to be nice to you, or else!’
‘If you’re really worried, don’t do it, and don’t give in to the others,’ I said. ‘If I’m quick, I’ll be out before it’s your turn.’
‘Thanks, Anna,’ she said quietly.
‘Hoy! What’re you two plotting up there?’ Corinne bellowed.
‘Nowt,’ I yelled back as Vicki scampered off to join the others.
My shower was rapid, and rather cold; it takes a while for the water to heat up. As I scrubbed, I checked the sole of my foot. The skin was wrinkled where I’d burst the blister, but it was surprisingly pain free. I dried myself quickly, grabbing my clean clothes, and dressed. I was still towelling my hair dry when left the bathroom.
I had selected my clothes carefully. My first choice had been a long skirt, but I knew that if I went even slightly glamorous, Corinne would tease me unmercifully. After some consideration, I settled on my old–but freshly laundered–combat pants and the almost unworn “Singing Hinnies” t-shirt I’d bought at their gig.
The t-shirt was another reminder of why Simon was such an arse. He hated the Hinnies: ‘All those pipes and wailing and stupid accents and depressing songs.’ It had been made very clear to me that he wasn’t going to attend the gig. He didn’t want me to go, either, but I’d dug in my heels. It had resulted in our only big argument.
I was singing “Cushie Butterfield” and still towelling my hair when I heard the Tiger approaching once again. By the time I’d thrown the towel onto my bedroom floor and dashed downstairs, Corinne was removing her helmet and handing it to a terrified-looking Vicki.
‘You’ve changed,’ James observed, looking me up and down.
‘Nope, I’m still me! Hard luck,’ I told him. While he chuckled, I lowered my voice and spoke to Vicki. ‘There’s an intercom in the helmet. If you think James is going too fast, or you’re unhappy, just tell him; he’ll listen.’ I looked at him, making certain that he understood. His response was little more than the twitch of an eye, but it was enough to reassure me.
‘You don’t have to do this, if you don’t want,’ he told her.
‘Everyone else has,’ replied Vicki determinedly. I wanted to hug her, but instead I simply helped her fasten the helmet and advised her how best to get on the bike. Once she was settled, I took her hands and placed them just above James hips.
‘Best hold on, if you’re worried,’ I suggested. ‘And trust him; it’s all about trust. When he leans, the bike leans, and you lean too. Whatever you do, don’t fight the bike.’
‘Not like Alex,’ James muttered. He shuddered slightly.
I stepped back, and watched them move slowly down the road. ‘Where’d you go?’ I asked the others.
‘Down the hill to Penistone Road, along to Netherthorpe Road, up to the IC, and then back past the Arts Tower,’ Alex told me. As always, she pronounced Penistone as penis-tone rather than pen-is-tan.
‘You guided him that way just so you could say penis tone, didn’t you?’ I said.
‘Yup,’ she admitted.
‘And I bet she asked about the tone of his...’ Corinne began.
‘Please!’ George protested. ‘If Brad, Phil, and me started talking about women like that, we’d get it in the neck for being sexist. I’m beginning to have some sympathy for James. We’re men, not sex objects, you know!’
We all spoke at once.
‘There, there, George, I’ve never thought of you as a sex object,’ said Alex venomously. ‘Does that make you feel better?’
‘In the neck?’ asked Corinne. ‘That’s why your sex life is in the state it is, mate.’
‘Why would Phil be talking about women?’ I added. ‘And what do you mean “beginning to have sympathy”? Don’t you like him?’
‘Who will rid me of these troublesome women?’ George asked, staring into the sky.
‘You love us all, really,’ Corinne told him.
‘From the heart of your bottom,’ Alex added. She kissed his cheek; Corinne followed suit. I folded my arms.
‘Don’t you like him?’ I asked again.
George shrugged. ‘I don’t know whether I like him or not, Anna,’ he admitted. ‘I certainly won’t be going on the back of a motorbike again!’ He paused. ‘He seems nice enough, but then I thought Simon was okay!’ He shook his head. ‘At least, unlike Simon, he’s got a decent sense of humour.’ That was enough for me; I bent over and planted my lips on his beard.
‘So, what do you think?’ I asked my friends.
‘Definitely fuckable,’ Alex told me.
‘You say that about ninety-percent of blokes under thirty!’ Corinne told her before turning to me. ‘He’s a nice guy, Anna, but I’m with George, that was my first and last motorbike ride.’
‘Did you look down?’ George asked her.
‘Yeah!’ She sounded terrified. ‘The road is only inches below your feet; if there was an accident!’ She threw up her hands in horror.
‘You’re wrong,’ I told her. ‘But what about James?’
‘I already like him,’ Corinne told me. ‘Brad thought he was okay, too, but he may change his mind.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘I asked him which team he supported. He started to say something about Chudley, and then stopped. When I said I’d never heard of them, and asked what league they play in, he admitted that he doesn’t really follow football. So far as Brad’s concerned, not having a team is a serious crime.’
As Corinne spoke, an image of ten-year-old James wearing a bright orange knitted hat flashed into my mind.
‘Have you shagged him yet? And if not, why not?’ Alex asked.
‘Bloody hell, this is only the second time I’ve met him since I was thirteen, twelve–I mean, eleven.’ I stopped, puzzled by my inability to remember how old I’d been when I’d last seen him.
‘That’s plenty of time,’ she assured me. We were still arguing when the Tiger arrived back.
I watched as Vicki climbed off, staggering. I was about to round on James when she lifted off her helmet to reveal a smile so wide it could probably be seen from space.
‘That–was–brilliant,’ she said. ‘It’s so much not like being in a car. It’s… it’s…’
I put an arm around her shoulder. ‘It’s being in the elements rather than cocooned inside a warm and comfortable box,’ I suggested.
‘Yes,’ she nodded enthusiastically. ‘That’s exactly it!’
‘I’m just glad that you enjoyed it, Vicki,’ James said. ‘I could feel you relaxing, unlike the rest of them.’
I caught the briefest glimpse of apprehension on Alex’s face. James missed it.
‘So, the award for best pillion passenger goes to Vicki.’ He seemed to sense that I was about to protest. ‘After you, of course.’ He told me. ‘I wish I’d thought to give your little speech to the others. As for the last place…’
He looked at the others. George and Corinne exchanged a worried glance, but Alex’s pale face and clenched teeth were what grabbed my attention.
‘It has to go to the person who fought me every inch of the way,’ he said. ‘The winner, or loser, is Alex! Sorry, but you simply don’t know how to relax and enjoy the ride.’
‘That’s not what most blokes say…’ George began. Noticing Alex’s expression, he fell silent. ‘Sorry, Lexi,’ he said.
Unlike Vicki, George wasn’t always ready to apologise. Ever since we’d first met, Alex had mercilessly taken the piss out of him, and George gave as good as he got. Alex had never complained about his insults, but I’d never seen her so thin-skinned. I had been out of touch with my friends for months–I wondered if something had happened.
The awkward silence that followed showed no sign of ending, and I could tell that James wasn’t certain whether he, or George, was responsible for Alex’s sudden moodiness. I did the only thing I could. ‘Who wants a cuppa?’ I asked.
‘Yes, please,’ Corinne said.
‘I need to go,’ said Alex firmly. ‘Another time, maybe?’
‘I’ll come with you,’ said George firmly. It wasn’t a request.
‘Actually,’ Corinne looked at her watch, ‘I think I’ll go and meet Brad at the pub; the match will be over soon.’
Chorusing their goodbyes, George and Alex went down the hill, and Corinne set off in the opposite direction.
‘Did I do something?’ James asked.
‘I’ve no idea. Something upset Alex,’ I said. ‘But nothing upsets Alex. She’s unupsetable! What happened when you were on the bike?’
‘Unupsetable,’ James grinned. ‘Not a word, little Annie.’
‘Should be!’ My response was automatic, and I was once again hurled back to my childhood. I fought my way back to the present and narrowed my eyebrows.
‘She made me promise not to say anything,’ James told me as I shooed him upstairs into the flat. Vicki followed silently behind.
‘We can keep a secret, can’t we Vicki?’
‘Yes,’ Vicki assured him.
‘I’ll make us some tea,’ I said. ‘James, you can help Vicki with the curry. And you can tell us what happened.’
Vicki made James wash his hands, and set him dicing the lamb while she added cardamom seeds to the mix in her mortar. I busied myself with the kettle.
‘She’s…’ James fell at the first hurdle.
‘The first thing she asked you was if you and I were fucking,’ I said.
‘It was the only thing she asked,’ James admitted. ‘Then, when we turned onto penis-tone road…’
‘Pen-is-tan,’ I told him. ‘Only Alex says penis-tone.’
‘Penistone Road,’ James said. ‘She asked me if there was something wrong, if … it … wasn’t working, and she, she had her hands on my waist, and she started sliding them forwards.’
‘She was teasing, she’d have stopped,’ I said confidently.
‘Possibly, probably even, but I panicked and opened up the throttle, she fell backwards, and the front wheel lifted. I braked, of course, and got the wheel back on the ground. She was screaming, and I could see her in the handlebar mirrors; her arms were like windmills.’
‘Fucking serves her fucking right,’ I said gleefully.
‘So, the momentum carried her forwards again, and she grabbed me around the chest. She was still screaming. I slowed right down, and we came back very slowly. She didn’t say another word, but it was obvious that she was terrified. She fought me at every corner, wouldn’t lean, and whimpered when I went over thirty; it was a nightmare ride. When we got to the end of your street, she made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone how terrified she was. I didn’t.’
‘But you told us she was the worst pillion,’ I observed.
‘I didn’t tell you that she screamed all the way back. Both George and Corinne admitted that they didn’t like the bike, but Alex was a nightmare. And she was stupid. What did she think would happen? I mean, even if she was only pretending to grab my…’
‘Penis-tone,’ I said as I scooped the leaves into the teapot.
‘Yeah, well.’ James’ momentary grin was replaced by a look of sorrow. ‘I know Alex is your friend, Annie, but…’
‘You don’t like her much, do you?’ asked Vicki. James shook his head.
‘Tea will need a couple of minutes to brew,’ I announced. ‘Anything I can do to help?’
Vicki pointed at the onions. ‘That’s the next job.’
After stacking the dirty plates in the dishwasher, I added the water glass James had used. He’d refused alcohol, because of the bike. By the time I’d put the bottles of Cobra Vicki and I had emptied into the glass recycling bin the kettle was boiling, so I set about making a post-meal cuppa.
As I worked, I thought back over the meal. James had tried to embarrass me, and I’d tried to embarrass him, with stories of our childhood. Vicki had laughed along with us, and asked a lot of questions. As I made the tea, I thought back over an evening of reminiscences and realised that I would really like to catch up with the rest of the gang.
When I walked back into the lounge with the tea, Vicki and James were giggling like idiots.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘You’re happy,’ Vicki told me.
‘She's a big lass and a bonny lass, and she likes hor beer. And they caal hor Cushie Butterfield, and ah wish she wes here,’ James sang.
‘That’s what you were singing while the kettle was boiling, Annie,’ Vicki told me. ‘I haven’t heard you singing while you were making the tea since...Well, not for a long time.’ She turned and looked thoughtfully at James, who was sprawled across our sofa. ‘And James can sing, too.’
‘I do my best,’ he said modestly.
‘You should do a duet,’ Vicki suggested.
‘I hope you’re not turning into Alex! That had better not be a euphemism!’ I said as I placed the tray on the table.
‘Of course not, you buffoon,’ James said. ‘A euphemism is like a tuba, except smaller.’
As I laughed, and watched Vicki trying to keep up, I realised that James had fed me a line. Plonking myself on the sofa alongside him, I wondered if he’d done it deliberately. There was one way to find out.
‘Buffoon?’ I asked. From the way his eyes lit up, I knew that his use of the word had been deliberate. ‘I must be confused, I thought a buffoon was a woodwind instrument.’
James chuckled. ‘Your dad would be proud of you, Annie,’ he said. ‘Are we going swimblering on Monday?’
‘Swimblerating,’ I corrected him. ‘Yes, you can pick me up at six-thirty on Monday.’ Concerned that we were excluding Vicki from the conversation, I shuffled around, leant into James, and gave her a “you okay?” look. She seemed happy to bask in our banter. ‘That’s one of Henry’s words,’ I explained.
‘So, you and Henry were best friends?’ Vicki asked James.
‘Yeah,’ he admitted, putting a hand on my shoulder. ‘Then I went off to big school, and we sort of lost touch.’
He gently squeezed my shoulder. I somehow knew what it meant: should he mention the incident on my birthday? Had I turned to face him he’d have had to release me. Still with my back to him, I shook my head.
‘I got myself a new best friend at big school, Craig Patterson,’ James continued. He shuffled around to better face Vicki, and gently pulled me back so that I was leaning against his chest. His hand slid down my arm and around onto my stomach. ‘Craig… We were friends all the way through school, although we… I…’ he paused. I placed my hand on his, and squeezed it. ‘Long story, short. Craig left school and did well, I was jealous, we sort of drifted apart until we lost touch. Then, last year, he contacted me. He asked me to fix him up with a date with my sister, Lily. It was easier than I thought, because she’d apparently had a crush on him for years. We went out as a foursome–Craig fixed me up with Kristen. That was a year ago, and it was a complete disaster for me and Lily.’
Because of the way we were sitting, I couldn’t see James, but his arm tensed. ‘I spoke to Al–my brother–yesterday. He’s heard a rumour that Craig and Kristen are together now. Perhaps they always were!’
‘Bloody hell,’ I said. But I didn’t ask any questions.
I heard him take a sip of the tea I’d prepared, and waited.
‘What is this?’ he asked.
‘Mint Marrakesh,’ I told him. ‘It’s a blend of Chinese green gunpowder and North African peppermint. It’s my favourite post-curry tea.’
‘Good choice.’ His arm tightened on my waist for a moment. ‘Chinese green gunpowder is a type of tea,’ he told Vicki.
She smiled. ‘I’ve been sharing a flat with Anna for more than two years, James,’ she reminded him. ‘I know about tea. What’s your excuse?’
‘I like tea,’ he said.
‘Thank you for the meal, Vicki,’ I said. ‘Sorry if I’ve been an arse about things.’
‘Yeah, thanks, Vicki,’ James added. ‘I envy you, Annie. You have a lot of friends, good friends. You both do.’ He paused. ‘I get the feeling that even Alex, for all her issues, would come running if you were in trouble, wouldn’t she?’
‘Yeah,’ I admitted.
Vicki nodded. ‘We’ve rescued her a few times.’
‘See! You’re lucky. I don’t have any real friends, just a couple of ex-girlfriends who still speak to me, and my family.’
‘Family’s good,’ Vicki said, ‘but what about Henry? You said he was your friend. You could always get back in touch with him. I’m sure Anna wouldn’t mind.’
‘My brother is an arse.’
‘He always had my back, and yours, too,’ said James staunchly.
We were still discussing Henry when James regretfully announced that he had to leave. I’d been leaning on him for over an hour, and before I shuffled sideways to allow him to stand, he kissed the back of my head.
‘I’ll see you out,’ I told him. ‘Were you serious about Monday?’
‘Swimming? Of course,’ he assured me. ‘I’ll be here at six-thirty, although I expect you’ll still be in your jim-jams.’
‘I’ll be ready,’ I promised.
The skies were clear, and the night cool. We walked across to the bike, and my mind filled with mischief.
‘Goodnight, Tiger; see you on Monday,’ I said, gently stroking the petrol tank.
James’ grin lit up his face. ‘What about me?’ he asked as he fastened his jacket and picked up his helmet.
‘Goodnight, what’s-your-name,’ I added dismissively.
I found myself being kissed. James’ left arm was around my waist; his helmet was in the crook of his right as his hand squeezed my backside. I slid my arms around him and responded in kind. The kiss lasted an eternity.
When we parted, we stared speechlessly at each other. James put on his helmet, started the bike, and waved. I waved back.
‘Bye,’ I whispered as he roared off down the street. I was still processing the spicy, minty, magical kiss.
As I locked the door and climbed the stairs into the flat, I again found myself singing. ‘Hey Mr Dreamseller, where have you been? Tell me, have you dreams I can see? I came along, just to bring you this song, can you spare one dream for me?’
‘That,’ Vicki observed smugly as I walked into the kitchen, ‘was a proper kiss.’
‘Damn right,’ I agreed. Picking up a tea towel, I began to dry the mugs she had washed.
‘Now that I’ve seen him properly, I’ve changed my mind,’ she told me. ‘He isn’t a bit like Simon.’
I hugged her.
We were standing on the Drakestone, taking stock of our domain. James was looking down into the valley towards Drakeshaugh; Rosie was at his side. Al, Lily, and Hugo were looking north, towards Alwinton. I was last to the top and facing Henry; he had been supervising my ascent and had his hands up, gesticulating, explaining, being bossy, as usual. Suddenly, he was bathed in a red light; he staggered forwards and knocked me from the top of the rock.
Before I could scream, I realised that I wasn’t falling; I was flying. I soared above the stone and saw the others. Most were staring up at me, but Henry was face down and dangling off the edge. James and Rosie each held one of his legs. They were trying to drag him back to safety, but I was distracting them. Then the pain hit me. Someone had injected molten lava into my veins. I tumbled to the ground and landed hard. As I tried to struggle to my feet, the pain hit me for a second time.
I sat up in bed, confused, aching, and soaked in sweat. The pain vanished when I woke, but the cold sweat remained. Pulling off my top, I used it to wipe the perspiration that was running both down my spine and between my breasts. Throwing the sodden vest onto the floor, I slid back into bed, and curled up into a ball. Sleep returned. Thankfully, the dream did not.
Back to index
Chapter 9: RoseRose
It was hopeless. Although I tried to count my strokes, to count lengths, and keep an eye on my times, there were too many other things on my mind.
I was floating, both literally and figuratively. My thoughts were drifting flotsam, broken pieces scattered everywhere. It was thinking about anything and everything, except swimming. Making another attempt to concentrate, I looked up at the enormous digital clock at the end of the pool. I found myself looking at the day and the date, not the time. It was Wednesday the twenty-ninth of September.
It had been a Wednesday three weeks earlier when James had arrived back in my life. Only twenty-one days, that was no time at all. Why was I missing him so much?
Lily’s birthday was the twenty-ninth. Not the twenty-ninth of September, her birthdate was, like my brother’s, unforgettable. I could hear her complaining to him about it.
‘Just shut up about birthday fireworks, Hen. I only get a real birthday once every four years, remember?’
Shaking my head, I again looked at the clock, and tried to concentrate on swimming. On the zero, four hundred metres freestyle, arms only: go!
It was Wednesday, the middle day in our early morning swim cycle. James had missed out on the Monday swim, too, but Monday was stamina, it was simply a case of ploughing up and down the pool for an hour. I hadn’t needed to count on Monday, although it would have been useful to know how far I’d swum; I again found myself wondering where my SwimTracker Band had gone. I’d turned my bedroom upside-down but hadn’t been able to find it. It wouldn’t have been much use today, as today was technique. Today was about James watching me, and me watching James
Wednesday was about me watching James, the muscles on his broad shoulders and upper arms rippling as he pulled himself through the water. It was about me watching James, his torso lightly dusted with freckles, tight black jammers encasing his muscular glutes, as he pulled his glistening wet frame out of the pool and smiled at me.
When I reached the pool side, I stopped. I was panting, but not from exertion. Instead of counting lengths, I’d been fantasising about James. I looked up at the clock and tried again. On the zero, four hundred metres freestyle, arms only: go!
The second Saturday, a week after we’d visited Hathersage, we’d ridden back to Castleton and walked up to Peveril Castle. That day I’d been sensible. During my hunt for my SwimTracker, I had discovered my shabby and worn old Karrimor boots in the bottom of my wardrobe. I took them with me, along with the only pair of walking socks I could find. It was hardly worth the effort; the walk up to the castle was neither long nor difficult. Despite the lack of a decent walk, we spent a pleasant few hours ambling about the place.
James insisted on exploring every nook and cranny. After a while, I became a little bored by his slow progress through the ruins. His ebullient enthusiasm for the place was overwhelming and almost child-like, so I indulged him. He was particularly interested in the area around the garderobe, claiming that there was something magical about that part of the keep. I told him that medieval toilets, even magical ones, were not high on my list of things to examine carefully.
While he messed about, I sat on the grass and gazed across at Mam Tor. It was a much easier landmark to pick out than the castle had been the previous weekend, and the views across the Hope Valley to its summit were tremendous. Above the broken castle walls, above the trees, the summit and ridge were sprinkled with tiny creatures, people doing what we’d done the previous Saturday. The sun was shining, and clouds were high and few. It was one of those glorious late summer days that inevitably brought back memories of my childhood. I sat on the grass, remembered our childhood explorations of the hills around Drakeshaugh, and basked in the September sun.
When we got home that evening, I made us toad-in-the-hole. My batter was a failure, the puddings had barely risen. Vicki said nothing, but James somehow sensed my annoyance. He told me that they tasted fine, and when I protested, he said that too many cooks were obsessed with appearance when taste was by far the most important thing.
I glanced across at the clock and realised that either I was ridiculously slow, or I’d miscounted the lengths. After a few seconds thought, I knew it was the latter. If I’d done the even number of lengths I’d counted, the clock should be to my left; it was on my right. When I’d started going out with Simon, training alone hadn’t been a problem. Unlike James, he had never actually been inside the pool, unlike James he hadn’t filled my thoughts.
Defeated by my wildly drifting mind, I clambered out of the water. If I couldn’t keep count, there was little point in staying. The progress I’d made in my swimming sessions with James appeared to have vanished with him. Unhappy with myself, I picked up my water bottle and headed for the showers. It was only eight-fifteen; I had plenty of time for me to grab a leisurely breakfast before the first lecture of my third year.
As I stood under the shower, I thought back to Saturday, the last time I’d seen James.
We’d originally planned a trip to Nottingham but, because of the weather forecast, we’d decided to take the bike to Loxley instead. Even that much shorter trip had been a mistake. The rain had started just as we’d set off and before we were even halfway there I discovered that my waterproof trousers and cagoule, so useful when I was out walking, were not up to the task of keeping me safe from road spray.
When we got to Loxley, James was again stupidly excited; I pretended that I wasn’t already cold and wet. It worked for a while, but after following him around on his fool’s errand for almost an hour, during which time he pointed out where all sorts of things would have been more than eight hundred years earlier, I was fed up and rather snappy. His enthusiasm, so endearing the previous weekend, wasn’t enough to banish my misery, not when there was nothing to see, and the rain had reached my underwear. When James pointed at a couple of trees and excitedly told me that the great forest of Loxley Chase had, at one time, extended all the way south to Sherwood, I’d finally snapped.
‘Yeah, well the land to the south is now called Sheffield, and it isn’t a fucking forest,’ I told him.
At that instant, James realised how miserable I was. He was prepared to leave immediately, but I argued, stubbornly telling him that I was fine. Fortunately, he ignored me.
We squelched back to the bike and, as James brushed the water off the saddle, I fumed. Despite the fact that I’d hidden my misery from him, and despite his instant action when he knew I wasn’t happy, I was both annoyed that he hadn’t noticed earlier, and that I’d forced him to curtail his explorations.
When we arrived back at the flat, I was soaked to the skin and frozen to the bone. I peeled off my sodden, definitely-not-waterproofs at the bottom of the stairs, dropped them on the floor, and got even more annoyed when James shucked off his own waterproofs off to reveal that, underneath them, he was completely dry. My immediate reaction was, of course, to be totally unreasonable.
‘Look at you, all warm and dry!’ I snapped. ‘I’m fucking drawked, perishing, and mightily pissed off,’ I told him as I shivered. ‘I’m going for a shower, and I hope for your sake that you’re going to make something bloody brilliant for dinner.’
As my fingers dug into my well-rinsed scalp, I again returned to the present. The shower I was under was at the pool, not my flat, and I’d been under it long enough. Picking up my shower gel and shampoo, I wrapped myself in my towel.
Dry and dressed, I bypassed the café in the pool and instead walked up to Daniella’s Delicatessen for a bacon, tomato, and cheddar panini and a pot of Scottish Breakfast Tea–the only decent tea they stocked. I sat on a barstool, all alone, and looked out of the window.
When I finally emerged from the shower, clean and–more importantly–warm, the smell of cooking hit me. My annoyance gone, I wrapped myself in my towel and wandered through into the living room.
‘What’s cooking?’ I asked.
‘Woah,’ said James, averting his eyes.
‘Anna!’ Vicki hissed, staring at my chest.
‘Oops,’ I said, hitching up the towel to cover my accidentally exposed left nipple.
‘What’s for dinner?’ I asked again.
‘Lasagne,’ James told me. He was looking at me sidelong, and for an instant I considered dropping the towel, just to see what he’d do.’
‘Out of a packet?’ I asked dismissively.
‘I bought the Lasagne sheets fresh, and everything else is made from scratch,’ he told me, sounding hurt. ‘Sort of like Mum made, but with a bit of a twist.’
I looked at Vicki. She nodded.
‘Honestly?’ I asked.
‘Yes, honestly,’ Vicki said. ‘Now go and get dried and dressed, please!’
‘Lasagne, nothing else?’ I asked dismissively as I turned to leave.
‘A salad,’ James told me. ‘There’s vinegar, but no dressing; that should suit you.’
Vicki snorted with laughter. I had to smile.
Finishing my tea, I picked up my sports bag and headed up to the University. The lecture room was unoccupied, which was no surprise because I was half an hour early. Finding myself a seat in the front row, I got out my tablet and tried to reread my notes from the previous semester.
James’ lasagne had more bite than I expected. This was due to his sparing use of chillies in addition to the red onions and sliced button mushrooms his mother had always added to the steak mince. The salad was simple and mostly green. The mix of little gem, rocket, and beetroot leaf was supplemented by two sliced beef tomatoes, and the balsamic vinegar was flavoured with garlic ans oregano.
My subsiding stroppiness was finally turned into laughter by the meal, the bottle of red wine Vicki and I shared, and James’ jokes. It wasn’t until he got up to leave that he reminded me that he would be away for a few days.
‘I’m going back to my old school tomorrow,’ he said as we walked downstairs. ‘I need to talk to a fat Friar about a fat Friar. I would’ve gone straight away, but I needed all sorts of permissions to get into the school during term time. Because of my… well, it wasn’t as easy as I hoped it would be. I won’t be back until who-knows-when on Thursday, but I’ll pick you up as usual for swimming Friday morning, okay?’
‘You don’t need to go now, you could stay with me tonight,’ my wine-loosened libido suggested. ‘And we could enjoy ourselves some more.’
‘I… Thanks for the offer, Annie, but I need to pack, and I need to set off very early tomorrow morning. Bye.’
Grabbing my outstretched arms, preventing me from hugging him, he brushed his lips against mine, and almost leapt onto the Tiger. Surprised and embarrassed by his reaction, and a little annoyed with myself, I simply stood and watched him prepare to leave.
‘It’s not that I don’t…’ He began sadly. ‘It’s just… I think… Rose said almost all of my relationships have begun based on a lie. I want you to know something… lots of things, but it’s complicated.’ He rode off, and that was the last I saw of him.
The lecture room was beginning to fill. Hearing my name, I looked up from the notes that I hadn’t been reading, and turned. It was the first time I’d seen Simon since the day James arrived and I had to look twice to make sure it was him. Had his cheeks always been so pinched, his lips so thin, his shoulders so narrow? He saw me looking, and glared.
Simon and his friends were sitting in the back row of the lecture room. The snide comments they made were ridiculously childish, and I had no idea what they were trying to achieve. From their loud discussions, Simon’s cheating on me was, apparently, my fault.
I was at the front; they were at the back. As the lecture room continued to fill, the chattering arrivals finally drowned out their voices. They were easy to ignore once Professor Landis had slouched into the room and everyone fell silent. I forgot all about them as I concentrated on my note taking.
The lecture ended at noon, and Simon and his friends were first out of the room. It took a minute or two before the slowly shuffling students ahead of me made their way to the doors, so when I finally emerged into the corridor, I was surprised to see that they were still in the building. I wondered why; usually they fled Bartolome House the moment lectures ended.
The quartet were clustered at the end of the corridor, near the main exit. Simon had his back to me while Matt, Pete, and Stu stood in a subservient semi-circle in front of him. I’d always felt a little sorry for Stu; he was the fourth member of a gang of three. His attempts to curry favour with the others were always over-eager and a little pathetic. The Kos holiday over Easter had been organised without his knowledge. The other three were more smug than sorrowful when Stu had discovered their plans too late to be able to join them.
Stu saw me first. I saw him stare at me and watched his expression turn to one of eagerness. Although I couldn’t hear him, I was certain he was relaying my presence to the others. Confirmation came when Matt and Pete glanced across at me. Simon, however, didn’t turn to look.
In order to leave the building by the main entrance, I had to walk past them. Wondering if they were testing me in some way, I kept walking. I wasn’t going to turn and seek an alternative exit; that would signal that I was worried about them, and I wasn’t.
This was some bizarre plot, it had to be. Pete was Simon’s oldest friend, they’d grown up together in Welwyn Garden City, but Pete was doing an accounting and financial management degree. There was no reason for him to have sat through a civil rights lecture with the others. They were definitely up to something. Armed with that knowledge, I made my way towards the door. I could ignore them, but they had no intention of ignoring me.
‘Hello, Anna.’ Pete’s voice was an unhurried, condescending drawl. ‘Long time no see. How are you?’
‘I’m very well, thanks,’ I told him, striding on without pause.
‘Bye, Anna,’ he added acidly. ‘Nice talking to you.’
‘Bye, Anna.’ Matt, Stu, and finally Simon chorused their goodbyes.
Simon sniffed loudly as I walked past. ‘Eau de swimming pool,’ he added. They all began to laugh.
Although their behaviour annoyed me, I wasn’t foolish enough to take the bait. It seemed to me that most of the students around were aware that something was going on, but were trying to ignore the puerile comments. I did the same. Refusing to be drawn into their petty game gave me a sense of superiority. As I left the building, I wondered what they had expected me to do. Was I supposed to be upset or annoyed? Did they expect me to fly off the handle, shout and scream? I had no idea, and there was no way to find out.
Heading across the courtyard towards the street, my drifting mind tried to work out how I could sneak up on them and overhear their plans. What I needed, I realised, was a cloak of invisibility. That thought cheered me up and I smiled happily as another long-forgotten piece of memory flotsam popped to the surface of my mind.
I glanced back over my shoulder; they had followed me from the building, and Simon was annoyed. That didn’t bother me at all. I was too busy grinning at the memory of eight-year-old James with a tartan blanket over his head.
‘It’s a cloak of invisibility, you can’t see me,’ James said.
‘James!’ For no obvious reason, Rosie was scandalised. ‘You can’t say that!’
‘It’s just a game, Rosie, don’t be such a silly billy,’ said Henry. He pulled the cloak off James’ head. ‘My turn, Jamie.’
‘You can’t have it, Hen,’ James protested, trying to snatch the blanket back. ‘I told you! It’s an invisibility cloak, so you can’t see me!’
‘You stood on that branch and it snapped. I heard it, so I could tell where you were,’ Henry told him.
‘Yeah,’ Lily agreed. ‘You did, James. I heard you too, but Hen grabbed the cloak first. Henry’s won it off of you, so it’s his turn to be invisibubble.’ She folded her arms. ‘It’s Henry’s turn to have it.’
‘We need rules for how it works,’ Rosie said.
‘Easy. We can’t see anything what’s under the blanket,’ I said.
‘Not blanket, cloak of invisibility,’ Hugo corrected.
‘Yeah,’ Lily agreed.
‘That’s what I meant,’ I protested, nodding as I fully immersed myself into the game.
‘But we can see branches bend and break, and we can hear you moving, Henry,’ l added. I glared at my brother to make sure he could understand me. It was wasted; he couldn’t see me because he had a blanket–a cloak of invisibility–over his head. He wasn’t moving. ‘But when you’ve got it on, you can’t stand still,’ I announced, pulling the blanket from his head.
‘Hey,’ Henry protested. ‘I never moved, an’ I never said nothing, so you can’t of seen me.’
‘No,’ I agreed, ‘But I seen you put it on, an’ you never moved, you said! So, I knows where you was! I was checking to see if you was still there.’
‘Good one, Annie,’ said James, impressed by my logic.
‘But…’ Henry began.
I threw the blanket over my head and ran away, then I tiptoed sideways before finally standing still and silent. I was confident that I was safely hidden. But it was taking all of my willpower not to risk a peek out from under the blanket. The others were still arguing about the rules.
‘Not fair, Annie,’ Henry continued his protests.
‘Them’s the rules, Hen,’ James announced.
‘Yeah,’ I heard the others agree.
‘Isn’t they, Annie?’ James added.
I almost agreed, but identified the cunning in his voice just in time. Realising what James was doing, I clamped my mouth tight shut. I couldn’t speak, because that would give away my position. Holding the blanket out, so I could see whether there were any twigs I should avoid, I shuffled sideways. There was the sound of running, and Rosie pulled it off my head.
‘Hey,’ I protested.
‘Your foot was sticking out from under the blanket,’ Al said, defending his cousin. I was gonna get you, but Rosie was quicker.
Rosie threw the blanket over her head and started to move. The blanket brushed a twig. Al grabbed it.
‘But…’ Rosie protested.
Our discussions about the rules of a game where we tried to find someone we could–in reality–see, took longer than the game itself. I continued to smile at the memory.
When I came fully back to the present, I was well through Weston Park, and I was being followed. One look showed that Simon and his friends were still behind me. He was staring at me, and scowling. It seemed my daydream-induced smile was annoying him, and that made me smile even more.
He wasn’t following me, not really, I assured myself. It was lunchtime; I was taking the shortest route from the Law Faculty to the Union building, and so was he. Most of my fellow law students were also following me. Despite this, something was niggling me. It didn’t take me long to realise what it was; Simon never, ever, ate in the Students’ Union.
Simon and his friends were still dawdling along behind me; they were close enough to see me, but far enough away to be able to claim that their presence was coincidental. By then, however, I was completely convinced that they were Tailing me.
I considered confronting them, but I knew they would deny it and I’d never be able to prove anything. Even as a second-year law student I could easily come up with a solid defence of their actions. They hadn’t done anything. We’d been in the same lecture, and we were now outside the Union at lunchtime. That wasn’t even stalking; it would take many weeks of much more intrusive behaviour before I could substantiate any such claim. Deciding to make a note of the events on my tablet, just in case, I went inside.
Five minutes later I was queuing to buy myself a cheap lunch. I was still a Billy-no-mates I’d seen no one in the building I knew. It was my own fault, I was well aware of that. I could have messaged Vicky, Alex, or Corrine and asked what they were doing for lunch, but I was feeling guilty. It was sobering to realise that I hadn’t lunched with any of my best girlfriends since I’d got together with Simon. Eating alone would be my self-inflicted punishment for neglecting them.
As I shuffled along in the queue, I wondered why Simon’s friends were supporting him so staunchly. Not even Stu, who I’d always suspected had a soft spot for me, had said anything to defend me from Simon’s childish remarks. True, they were Simon’s friends, but there was no acknowledgement that Simon had done anything wrong.
While I waited to be served, I found myself dwelling on the comments they’d made in the lecture room. They were true, in part. While we were together, Simon had been very generous. He’d spent time and a lot of money on me. With hindsight, that was my biggest regret. I couldn’t deny the truth of it. Pete’s loudly expressed opinions had annoyed me. Simon deserved better, I was ungrateful! It seemed that Pete thought of me as a commodity. Simon had spent a lot of money on me, therefore he still had some claim over me.
‘I’m a person, not a chattel,’ I grumbled to myself. The person in front of me in the queue looked around, decided that I was a crazy-woman, and studiously ignored me.
Simon had persuaded me to give up my lifeguarding job and, until I renewed my Pool Lifeguard qualification, I couldn’t reapply. With nothing but my student loan to live on, and having spent more than I should have on breakfast, I selected salad fillings for my falafel wrap, and ordered tap water to drink.
As I paid for my lunch, I thought about James. He’d be back tomorrow, but I wouldn’t see him until Friday. We’d seen each other, or at least spoken to each other, almost every day since our trip to Mam Tor. I’d become used to his presence, and after three weeks in his company, I was missing him more than I thought possible.
Finding an empty table, I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t pining for him. He was a training buddy, and that was all I needed. I tried harder when he was there. He brought out my competitive streak. I would exhaust myself trying to beat him.
I knew I was lying to myself. Since we’d reconnected, his cheerful chatter and stupid jokes had been keeping me sane. This was a good thing, as my dreams were getting wilder. Worried that my stupid, semi-drunken pass at him as he’d left for Scotland had driven him away, I contemplated a life without him.
As I sat, I looked back at the counter. Simon, Matt, Pete, and Stu were looking at the lunch options in confusion, asking advice from the woman refilling the salad bar. It was as if they’d never dined in the Union before.
I was watching them carefully, and wondering what I would do if they tried to sit at my table, when someone approached me from behind. Before I could turn to look, a long-forgotten voice spoke.
‘Annie Charlton?’ she asked hesitantly, stepping alongside me.
I saw her hands first. Her fingers were long, pale, and entirely free from jewellery; the backs of her hands were heavily freckled. She must have been to one of the other counters, as the tray she carried contained a pot of tea, vegetable soup, a cheese savoury bap, and a large slice of carrot cake. I looked up at her face and smiled.
She was tall and gangling. Her cropped curly hair was the same flaming red as her father’s; she had his long, freckled nose, too. The last time I’d seen her, she’d had braces on her teeth, and all these years later her smile was still a little toothy. She wore a rather shabby hand-knitted pullover, and a shapeless and faded pair of brown corduroy trousers.
‘Rosie Weasley,’ I said, smiling. ‘Long time, no see. It’s good to see you! Care to join me?’
‘It’s Rose,’ she said seriously as she placed her laden tray on the table and sat directly opposite me. ‘No one has called me Rosie since…’
‘It’s Anna,’ I interrupted, grinning. ‘But James doesn’t seem to hear me when I tell him that. And it isn’t that long since someone called you Rosie. I know it’s not! I heard James call you Rosie-posy on the phone.’
‘James!’ she said, rolling her eyes. That one word was enough.
‘The tea in here’s pretty bloody awful,’ I told her, looking at the pot on her tray. The Earl Grey’s not bad...’
Distracted, I looked over her shoulder. Simon had looked across at us, frowned, and left the queue. He was striding from the cafeteria. Rose noticed my distraction and turned to see what I was looking at. She was just in time to see Simon’s bewildered friends follow him out.
‘My ex-boyfriend and his pals,’ I explained. ‘I thought they were following me, but now they’ve gone. I must be getting paranoid. I wonder why they came here and then left without buying anything? It doesn’t matter–forget about them. It’s good to see you, Rosie–Rose–how’s life been treating you?’
I’d asked her a question, and her reaction was exactly the same as it had always been. Despite her physical resemblance to her father, the expression as she carefully pondered her reply belonged to her mother. When I was growing up I’d always been a little afraid of Mrs Weasley, so I waited.
‘Okay,’ she said after a lot of consideration. Suddenly, she had her dad’s mischievous twinkle.
As I laughed, she took a spoonful of soup.
‘Bloody hell, Rose, after all that thinking I was expecting a bit more than a one-word answer. Not great, not even good, simply okay?’
She shrugged, and took another slurp of soup before replying.
‘When I moved up here, I was looking to make some changes in my life. I wanted to sort myself out. I wasn’t expecting to get James as a flatmate,’ she admitted.
‘He’s got a job. He’s paying you rent,’ I protested.
‘He’s flipping burgers! You’re studying law, Anna, and James is working shifts in a burger bar.’
‘He’s writing, too.’ I looked into her eyes, suddenly worried. ‘He is writing, isn’t he? He told me that he’d been working on “The Man in the Hood” ever since we came back from Mam Tor.’
‘Yes,’ she assured me. ‘It’s a long time since I’ve seen him so engrossed in something. In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing him this obsessed with anything, and certainly not with two things.’
‘Two?’ I asked. ‘Is he researching Peveril Castle, too? He told me that would have to wait.’
She looked at me as if I was mad, and continued to wolf down her soup. ‘What’s happening between you and James?’ her question was blunt.
‘Dunno,’ I shrugged. If she was going to give one word answers to important questions, so was I.
‘He never stops talking about you,’ she told me.
‘Good or bad?’ I asked, trying to play it cool and not daring to ask if the second thing he was obsessed with was me.
‘Don’t you know?’ she asked incredulously, tantalisingly me by almost confirming my hopes. Putting down her spoon, she stared into my face. I tried to keep it blank.
‘So far as I know, we’re just good friends,’ I said carefully. As I spoke I realised what a cliché that was, and how much our goodbye kisses made a lie of my words. Nevertheless, I suppressed my emotions and continued with the story James and I were telling each other. ‘James says friends is a good place to be, we’ve always been friends. We have, you know that, Rosie. You and I are friends, too. At least we were. We were a gang, remember? We swore an oath, in blood!’
‘Bloody hell,’ she said. ‘We did, didn’t we? A blood oath! What were we thinking? How could I have forgotten all about that?’ Looking horrified, she stared at me. It seemed that she was silently searching for answers in my eyes. She was making me uncomfortable, so I broke eye contact and tried to discomfort her a little.
‘When you sat down, you said you were moving on. From a boyfriend?’
Surprised, Rose tried to shrug off my question.
‘Who?’ I pressed her.
‘There was a boy at school. He was Al’s best friend, so he was always hanging around with us. He kept asking me out, at least from fourth year onwards he did. Dad didn’t like him. Well, that’s not strictly true. Dad didn’t like his dad, so I said no. I kept saying no until I was sixteen.’
‘What was his name?’ I asked curiously.
‘It doesn’t matter.’ She shook her head, apparently unwilling to even speak his name aloud. ‘James warned me about this,’ she muttered. Her comment seemed to be directed more to herself than to me. ‘Anyway, he was clever, really clever! We were sort of rivals. He always got better marks than me in the practical tests, but I was always much better at the theoretical stuff. I thought, well–when we finished school–I thought we’d be–together–you know?’
I nodded, and my mind hunted through the flotsam for the broken remnants of a memory. Pale face, blond hair.
‘He got a job working for his dad, but I wanted to go to university. He said I was wasting my time, that I should forget about the Mu… the mundane world and stay with him. I ignored him, applied to read Maths at Reading, and got in. He didn’t like it. He came to visit, at least for a while, but…’ she looked around the cafeteria and waved her hands everywhere. ‘It was a lot like this place, and he really didn’t like it. He was a bit of a recluse, comfortable in the world he knew and unnerved by anywhere outside his comfort zone. He demanded that I choose him, or University, so I did.’
‘And here you are,’ I observed.
‘Yes, it wasn’t the choice he thought I’d make. We spit up just before the Christmas of my second year.’
‘That must’ve been almost two years ago, Rose. You can’t still be coming to terms with it?’
‘I suppose I am,’ she admitted. ‘Since then there’s never been anyone else. I didn’t want anyone else; I was convinced he’d miss me, realise he was wrong, and change his mind. But now… I’ve only known him a few weeks… We met the same day you and James met. Gunther…’ she stared into my face. ‘He’s a M… He’s like you… No…’ Pausing, she tried to gather her thoughts. I’d never seen Rosie so tongue-tied. ‘Do you really think that you and James could be together? The secrets…’
‘Secrets?’ I asked, puzzled. ‘James said something about secrets, too, but we’re the Drakestone Seven, we don’t have secrets.’ Reaching across the table, I placed my hand on hers.
‘C’mon, Annie, run!’ Grabbing my hand, Rosie pulled me to my feet, but my legs were still shaking. Putting my arm across her shoulders, she helped me stagger down the hill.
‘… okay?’ Rose asked.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘You spaced out there, just for a second,’ Rose said. ‘What happened?’
I was just remembering the time you helped me back to Drakeshaugh,’ I told her. ‘When I… When we… I really can’t remember what, or when.’ I stopped, and waved my hands. ‘I’ve been having some very strange dreams recently. I keep forgetting them, but I think I was remembering one.’
‘I’m in your dreams?’ Rose asked.
‘You all are,’ I admitted. ‘They started the night I met James. What’s he told you?’
‘About what?’ she asked.
‘About what we do when we get together.’
‘You go swimming together three mornings a week, and now you’ve got your lecture timetable, you intend to make it four. Every Saturday you go out for the day on that noisy old motorbike of his; you’ve been to the cinema a couple of times, always on Tuesday afternoons because of that two-for-one deal. Last week James said that you both think that Marvel Movies are losing their edge. And, there’s nothing else going on between you!’ she finished primly.
‘We’re not fucking, if that’s what you mean,’ I told her. She looked scandalised, so I decided to tell all. ‘But he’s one helluva kisser, Rosie, and I’d be up for it. You can even tell him that, so long as you don’t tell him that I said you could. Although after last Saturday, I think he probably knows.’
‘What happened last Saturday?’
‘I got a little drunk and invited him to spend the night,’ I admitted. It felt good to admit it, but I didn’t want her to press me on the subject. ‘What about you and Gunther? Is he an improvement on the bizarrely named Scorpius Malloy?’
‘Malfoy,’ she corrected. Her jaw dropped and she stared into my face. ‘How did you know his name. I didn’t tell you.’
‘You did,’ I told her.
She shook her head.
‘You did,’ I said. ‘Scorpius Malfoy, Al’s best friend from school. Hen and I met him, although I think it was only once. He was a pale, blond, and skinny lad. He was weird. Unsure whether to be absolutely terrified of Hen and me, or to act like we were scum and totally beneath him. I think it was during the Easter break of Lily’s first year.’
Rosie looked at me as if I were mad. ‘When’s the last time we met?’ she asked.
‘My unforgettable eleventh birthday party,’ I said promptly.
‘That’s what I think, too,’ she said. ‘James and I have discussed it. But you’re right, Scorpius did go to Drakeshaugh during the Easter holidays in Lily’s first year.’
‘Which means I’d have been twelve, or even thirteen, depending on when Easter fell that year.’ I said. ‘That’s crazy! How can I remember something that happened an entire year after we last met?’
‘Did James tell you about him?’ Rose asked.
‘Not that I can remember,’ I said. I tried to peer through the sudden fog that was obscuring my memories, but it was no use. ‘But that’s the only explanation isn’t it. He must’ve mentioned your ex-boyfriend’s name. Probably when we were at the pool, he rabbits on about nothing and everything when we’re in the pool. I forget most of it.’
‘I’ll ask him when he gets back tomorrow,’ Rosie told me. ‘So, how are your parents, and how is Henry? James said that he dropped out of school and became a car mechanic.’
‘He did,’ I told her. ‘How long do you have, Rosie? I’ve just left my first lecture, and I don’t have another one until first thing tomorrow morning. You’re going to have to tell me about your folks, and Hugo. My folks are fine, although I think my Dad misses yours. No one laughs at his crappy jokes these days.’
Rosie’s smile transformed her. ‘I’d forgotten,’ she admitted. ‘When those two got together the puns were…’
‘Pun-ishing?’ I suggested.
She put her head in her hands and groaned.
Back to index
Chapter 10: BodyguardsBodyguards
He had film star looks. His hair was night black, his teeth were impossibly straight and unnaturally white, and his chiselled jaw was blued by stubble.
As I gazed at his too perfect features, my view of him changed. His appearance didn’t, but I saw beyond it, and I saw someone else. Was it insight, hindsight, or foresight? I had no idea, but it didn’t matter. Whatever it was, it allowed me to see past the physical. The sparkling smile was a too-wide rictus, and the shadowy darkness behind his eyes made me shiver.
‘Hello, children,’ he said calmly. ‘My name is Raymond Patterson, I’m here to help.’
‘Help?’ Henry appeared to be as worried by the man as I was. ‘We don’t need any help, Mister. James’ dad called his people, and they’ve taken her away. We caught her. All of us! We did it together.’ My brother’s words dripped with disbelief as he continued.
‘Yeah.’ James stepped forwards to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my brother. He added his own voice to Henry’s. ‘Help with what?’ he asked. ‘You’re too late to help. The Aurors are gonna put her back in prison.’
As the mist of mistrust surrounding me thickened into a fog of fear, I looked around and realised I wasn’t the only one who was worried; everyone felt the same. Our combined anxiety was swelling to the point that we were physically closing ranks. As we clustered, James and Henry moved to the fore.
‘These two are Muggles, James,’ the man explained through a smile that remained fixed even while he spoke. He pointed at Henry and me. ‘You know what has to be done.’
‘You’re an Obliviator,’ Al was horrified. He and Hugo immediately stepped forwards, interposing themselves between the man and Henry.
The man nodded. I was fascinated by the way he could keep that smile on his lips despite the fact it went nowhere near his eyes. The cold darkness I saw in those impossibly blue orbs was infecting me. I shivered as my blood began to freeze.
‘They’re our friends!’ Rosie said. ‘They won’t tell anyone.’ She stepped in front of me.
‘And anyway, Annie’s not exactly a M…’ Lily began her protest as she stepped alongside Rosie. The man pulled out a stick and waved it. Lily gagged. ‘Hmng!’ Even when she thrust two fingers into her mouth she was unable to free her tangled tongue. Her attempt to protest remained a meaningless mumble.
‘I’m very sorry, young lady,’ He told Lily. The smile finally vanished, and we all knew he was lying. He wasn’t sorry at all. James shouted and dashed towards the man; we all followed. We weren’t fast enough. He waved the stick at us.
As he did so, a harmonium began to drone. The noise of it filled my dream. I felt a sudden jerk behind my navel as I was squeezed and spun through space. Pulled away from Drakeshaugh, I opened my sleep-filled eyes and found myself back in my Sheffield bedroom.
I stared at the plain white ceiling, breathless and frightened, and trying to make sense of what I could remember of this latest, and wildest, dream before it faded. I’d certainly been sound asleep, the stiffness in my limbs was testament to the fact that I hadn’t moved for some time. But the encounter in Drakeshaugh Wood felt more like a memory than a dream. It couldn’t be, but I was beginning to worry. My dreams were getting crazier.
Stretching my limbs and arching my back, I slid out of bed. Since my trip to Mam Tor I’d worn the bloodstone claw constantly, only removing it when I was swimming. It was a comfortingly warm presence on my cold and clammy skin. The dream was fading, but there was that word again–Muggle. It seemed so familiar, but what did it mean? I could ask James, provided the memory didn’t fade. He’d used it when we’d first met; “just some random Muggle” he’d called me.
On the table next to my bed, my phone was still playing the song I’d set as my alarm. I’d changed it weeks earlier, the night after my first ride on the Tiger. Rolling on some deodorant, I sang along under my breath.
‘One’s for sorrow, two’s for joy, three’s for a girl, and four’s for a boy, five’s for silver, six for gold, seven’s for a secret never told. Devil, devil I defy thee…’
Realising that I’d let the song play for long enough, and my singing was increasing in volume to a point where it would probably disturb Vicki, I swiped a finger across my phone. Silence fell, but I broke it immediately. ‘Seven’s for a secret, never told,’ I whispered to myself as I carefully opened my bedroom door; it creaked loudly.
Stepping onto the landing, I realised that my ineffective attempt to remain quiet was unnecessary. Vicki’s bedroom door was open, and so were her curtains. The usually dingy landing was bathed in early-morning light. When I walked into the kitchen, she was eating porridge. My flatmate was dressed, and she seemed to be waiting for me.
‘Morning,’ she said. ‘Want some?’ She lifted the plastic container in which we kept the porridge oats.
‘Yes, please. I’m going to make myself a pot of Scottish breakfast tea…,’ I stopped and gave her an enquiring look.
‘Hmmm,’ She had a mouthful of porridge, so she nodded.
‘I didn’t think you had any lectures this morning,’ I said, switching on the kettle and busying myself with the teapot.
‘I don’t,’ Vicki admitted as she poured oats and milk into my bowl, gave it a stir, and put it in the microwave. ‘But I thought I’d walk down with you. I need to go to the library.’
‘Your decision to come with me wouldn’t have anything to do with Simon–with what I told you last night–would it?’ I demanded.
Vicki shook her head firmly, but she was a lot easier to read than the man I’d been dreaming about–Obliviator Patterson. Pushing aside the fact that I’d given the man in my dream a name, and I could still remember it, I stared at my flatmate.
Despite her vigorous head shake, her expression told me that she wasn’t being honest. She intended to ensure that I wasn’t hassled by Simon on my way into lectures. When I raised a cynical eyebrow, she knew that I knew.
‘You’re flashing again,’ she said in a desperate attempt to distract me.
Pulling the strap of my vest back up onto my shoulder and my scrunched-up boxers down from my bum crack, I decided that I wouldn’t argue with her. When I’d told her–the previous evening–of the incident with Simon and his pals, it had been obvious that my account had worried her. She’d dismissed my attempts to move the discussion on to Rosie, and had questioned me carefully about Simon. Now she was trying to protect me. I decided to accept her help.
‘I don’t believe you, but thanks.’ I smiled gratefully.
‘No problem,’ she said, smiling back.
In order to make the tea I had to move the clothes airer; it was full of Vicki’s stuff. The uppermost item was a colourful George t-shirt, and its drooping label told me that it was “age 13-14”. I smothered a grin and concentrated on making the tea. Vicki bought most of her clothes from the children’s department, and most of her shoes, too.
This was my defender! Vicki was no more than 45 Kilos wet through, and wouldn’t look threatening even if she put on a ninja costume and struck a Manga warrior pose. Nevertheless, if Simon was up to something, her presence at my side would be enough. A witness is always a better option than a warrior. Feeling happier, I immersed myself in my tea-making routine. While I was pouring the water into the pot, I had an idea. Leaving the tea to mash, I picked up my phone.
‘Reminder,’ I said.
‘Please set reminder,’ my phone replied.
‘Friday morning, ask James about Muggles,’ I paused, ‘and Obliviator Patterson.’
‘I didn’t hear that,’ my phone told me patiently. ‘Did you say muddles and Oliver Patterson? If yes…’
‘Oh, bugger off,’ I told it. Giving up, I opened the planner instead.
‘What was that all about?’ Vicki asked me when I finished typing a reminder into my phone. To do it, I had to override the autocorrect.
‘I’m not sure,’ I said, not wanting to tell Vicki about my dream. ‘I think it’s probably to do with something that happened when I was little. You know what it’s like when you can’t quite remember something? I thought I’d ask James when I see him.’
Twenty minutes later we were strolling down towards the university. As we walked, I looked down at my friend, smiled to myself, and resisted the urge to hug her. She didn’t notice my amusement, because she wasn’t looking at me.
Vicki had pulled her long black hair back into two untidy plaits, which were rolling across her shoulders as her head swivelled. Her deep brown eyes darted everywhere. She was examining every side street, ginnel and snicket, seemingly certain she’d spot Simon skulking somewhere in the shadows.
We’d been walking in silence for some time when she finally asked the question again. She’d asked it three times the previous evening, so I’d known she wasn’t convinced that my reply was honest. It was a question that nagged at me as much as it nagged at her.
‘You really don’t have any idea what he’s up to, what he’s trying to achieve?’
‘No,’ I assured her. ‘Honestly, Vicki, I have no idea. He might not be up to anything. Perhaps it was simply a coincidence.’
‘Huh!’ Vicky’s surprisingly gruff grunt firmly dismissed that possibility. ‘But Pete was hanging around outside the Union Building when you left, and Rosie walked you home?’
‘Yeah,’ I admitted. ‘Well, almost home, anyway. She came to the end of the street, and then turned off up towards the Hallamshire. But Pete didn’t follow us.’
‘The hospital?’ asked Vicki anxiously. ‘That’s in completely the other direction. Rosie must’ve been really worried about you.’
I laughed, shook my head, and tried to reassure her. ‘Not the Royal Hallamshire, Vicki, the Hallamshire Arms, the pub up the hill,’ I assured her. ‘Rosie isn’t living in student accommodation, she has a house somewhere up that way.’ I gestured in the general direction of Crookes. ‘She walked with me because it was on her way home. It’s nice that you’re worried, but I think you’re overdoing it a bit.’
Vicki shrugged, lapsed into silence, and increased her vigilance. She wouldn’t even let me walk into the law faculty building alone, insisting on taking me right to the door of the lecture room. It wasn’t necessary; there was no sign of Simon.
‘Doesn’t he take this course?’ Vicki asked.
‘Yeah, but he doesn’t like early mornings. He used to skip the morning lectures, and I’d message my notes to him.’ I failed to keep the glee from my voice. ‘He’s going to be in trouble, because that’s not going to happen this semester.’
When I left my first lecture, foundations of international law, Simon and Matt were outside, waiting. It was just the two of them, and the second they saw me they strode purposefully forwards. I was trying to prepare myself for the encounter when they stopped.
‘Morning, gorgeous,’ smarmed Brad, appearing at my shoulder from nowhere. ‘What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?’
‘It’s the law faculty, where else would I be? What’s your excuse?’ I asked. Pausing, I turned to look directly at Simon and Matt, and raised my voice. ‘Are you stalking me … Brad?’
As I hesitated, and just before I said my final word, Simon and Matt turned on their heels and fled.
‘Now that’s what I call suspicious behaviour,’ observed Brad as he stared at my rapidly retreating ex. ‘Nicely done, Anna. You’re a sneaky bugger.’
‘Me?’ I shrugged and looked inquisitively into Brad’s face. ‘I’m beginning to think I’ve got nothing on super-sneaky Vicki! I bet she put you up to this, but how the hell did you find me?’
‘I’m a genius, didn’t you know?’ Brad grinned. ‘Vicki’s call was spot on! Smarmy Simon is up to something. Any idea what it is?’
‘How the hell did you find me?’ I asked again.
‘Your lecture timetable is on your fridge. Vicky photographed it, sent it to us all, along with a message. She asked if we could keep an eye on you between lectures.’ He put an arm around my shoulder and squeezed. ‘To be honest, I thought it was a joke, but Corinne was worried. She insisted I turn up here, because I’m the only one with a free period right now. She’s on the top floor of the Arts Tower doing God-knows-what Shakespearean nonsense. She made me promise! It’s a good thing I was here. I’ll let her know what’s just happened.’ He pulled out his phone.
‘Nothing happened,’ I said. ‘Simon and Matt saw you, and scarpered.’
‘That’s not nothing,’ Brad said. ‘I don’t know what it is, but there’s definitely something going on, and you know it, Anna, so stop the bullshit. Come on, your next lecture is advanced criminal law and justice, and it’s upstairs, isn’t it?’ He led me to the stairwell.
‘No buts, big butt,’ he said. as he followed me up the stairs, he was texting furiously.
‘You’re a sexist body-shaming twat,’ I told him cheerfully. He ignored me.
‘It’s not really big, is it?’ I asked in my best worried-little-girl voice. He laughed.
‘It really is good to have you back, Anna! Alex and George are going to meet you when this lecture is finished. They’re going to take you to lunch, and escort you to your afternoon seminar.’
‘I’m not a child,’ I said.
‘Never said you were! But, like you always used to tell Alex, taking every precaution possible is the sensible thing to do. Alex and George volunteered. Corinne’s feeling bad about not being here now, and she was going to come along too, but they insisted that it be just them. They want to talk to you,’ Brad said. ‘Corinne is desperate to know what they want to say. She thinks Alex is shagging him!’ He twirled a forefinger next to his temple. ‘But not even George is that stupid. Here you are!’
‘Sorry ‘bout the other week, I shouldn’t’ve tried to grab James. I hated that fucking motorbike.’
Alex words came out in a rush, but her tone was flat, and she didn’t meet my eyes. I stared at her in astonishment, then looked over at George. He rolled his eyes.
‘Don’t expect more,’ he said as his usual cheery grin appeared. ‘She really is sorry.’
‘You letting George speak for you now?’ I asked her. She shrugged.
‘Now, where’s this arsehole of an ex of yours?’ George asked, clenching his fists and cracking his knuckles.
‘You’re safe from him now, Anna. George is almost as tough as Vicki, you know,’ Alex deadpanned.
I laughed, and so did George. ‘He’s not here,’ I told George. ‘He isn’t taking advanced criminal law and justice, he doesn’t need to. He wants to work in business law when he graduates, because that’s where the big money is. So, I’m safe. There’s no need for you to be here.’
They were flanking me as we walked down the stairs. No one could get past us, but that wasn’t really a problem as it was almost one o’clock and everyone was heading in the same direction–out. There was no sign of Simon, but I hadn’t really expected to find him.
‘Not taking the option? I’m surprised you’re doing it, then!’ Alex snapped.
‘He tried to persuade me to take contract law instead, but I’d had my heart set on criminal law before I even got to uni. I signed up for the criminal law course, before I’d even met him,’ I admitted. As I spoke, I began to wonder about his motives; a worm of suspicion began burrowing through my memories.
‘Lunch in the Union?’ George asked.
‘Why not?’ I said. ‘Brad says that Corinne thinks you two have something to tell me. He thinks that she thinks that you’re in lurve!’
‘And Vicky thinks that Simon is stalking you.’ Alex blatantly diverted the conversation back to me. ‘That’s the only reason we’re here. What do you think?’
‘You know she walked down here with me this morning?’ I asked. They nodded.
‘That was the plan,’ George admitted, glancing sidelong at Alex as he spoke. She was staring at me, oblivious to his attention. ‘There were messages flying back and forth until midnight last night. You know what Vicki was like when we were in C7! Remember her cleaning and cooking rota? She’s a hell of an organiser.’
‘That fucking pain-in-the-arse, colour-coded, rota!’ added Alex. There was bile in her voice, but a smile on her lips. ‘Don’t flatter yourself, Anna, we don’t really care about you. We’re only here because Vicki said this was important.’
‘I care!’ George protested, shaking his head in despair. ‘So does Alex, really! So what’s happening?’
‘Vicki is definitely more worried about Simon than I am,’ I assured them. ‘You should have seen her this morning, Yellow Power Ranger Vicki was ready for anything!’ I paused in the doorway to put on the pose. My friends began to laugh, but our good humour only lasted until we walked outside into a dank drizzle
‘Looks like she was right to be worried,’ George observed.
He nodded across to the bike shelter, and there they were. Simon, Matt, and Pete stood under the corrugated plastic, sheltering from the rain. I stared. When they saw us, Simon muttered something, and they turned to leave. Alex, however, raised her voice.
‘Hey, isn’t that your ex-boyfriend and his pals?’ she said loudly. ‘Is it true that he’s got the smallest cock you’ve ever seen…’ I was about to protest, but Alex elbowed me in the ribs. ‘George?’ she finished, looking past me at our bearded friend.
Simon had stopped mid-stride at her “cock” crack, but her final word was the killer blow. As I watched my ex clench his fists, I remembered several dismissive comments he’d made about Phil and realised that I could add homophobic to the ever-increasing list of my ex’s flaws.
Like me, George was staring at Simon. Nevertheless, he snorted with laughter. ‘One day that tongue of yours is going to get you into trouble, Alex,’ he told her.
‘Most blokes like my tongue,’ she told him. ‘Even you! I expect that you fantasise about what I could do to you with it, Georgie.’
‘Fuck!’ I said. Simon disappeared into the rain. ‘Really? Come on, Alex, you haven’t behaved like this to George since…’
I paused, and looked at her. She lowered her head; I faced down George instead. When he nodded, I knew. My remembrance of our first year falling out with Alex was the key. The pieces finally fell into place.
‘She doesn’t want any I-told-you-so’s from anyone,’ George said firmly. We halted at the kerbside and I stared at my friends.
‘Hard luck, Alex,’ I said harshly as we crossed the road. ‘Is it chlamydia, again, or something else?’
‘Same,’ she grumbled.
‘Once is a misfortune, twice is carelessness! You never listen! Why don’t you ever fucking listen? What the hell is so wrong with using condoms? The pill’s fine by itself–provided you’ve got a faithful boyfriend–but…’
As I scolded her, I managed to distract myself from my rant with my own words. ‘Fuck,’ I said as my advice hit home. ‘I wonder if I should get myself tested?’
‘D’you feel okay?’ Alex asked.
‘Then you probably are,’ she reassured me. ‘But I’ll give you the number of the university clinic if you want to be certain.’
‘Thanks,’ I mumbled. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with worry and feeling worse than I had in weeks.
‘On the plus side,’ Alex said, ‘you’re a serial monogamist. If you’ve got it, it’s because Simon gave it to you. I’ve got no idea who I got it from. I had to tell five different blokes.’
‘How’s that a plus?’ I asked bitterly.
‘You can warn every girl he talks to,’ she said, glaring at George.
‘That’s how I found out,’ George said. ‘I ran into Alex up there.’ He motioned towards the Union building. ‘We had lunch and joked on, as we do, you know? After she’d left, this guy I’d never seen before came up to me and told me. He wasn’t very polite about it.’ His stare told me how much he was understating the guy’s comments. ‘That’s why we went off together the other day, after that bloody awful bike ride. I wanted to tell Alex I knew why she was being such a bitch.’
Alex laughed, and gave George a hug. ‘You know what this little star did to the guy?’
I shook my head.
‘I told him I was her brother,’ George said. ‘You should’ve seen his face! I’ve never embarrassed anyone so much in my life.’
Despite myself, I laughed.
‘Why do you need us, anyway? Where’s biker-boy? Shouldn’t he be the one looking after you? Why has he abandoned you in your hour of need?’ As he opened the door into the refectory for us, George bombarded me with questions.
‘He’s gone off to Hogwarts, to do some research for an article he’s writing,’ I told them. ‘I’ll see him at the pool tomorrow morning.’
‘Gone where?’ asked George.
‘Hogwarts?’ Alex queried. ‘Where the hell is that?’
‘It’s his old school,’ I told them. ‘It’s somewhere in Scotland. I’ve no idea where.’ As I spoke, I wondered how I knew. I could feel the memory fading so I pulled out my phone, opened the planner, and added the word Hogwarts to the list.
‘What was that all about?’ George asked.
‘I’m not sure,’ I admitted. ‘I’ll find out when I see James, tomorrow.’
‘Should we be worried about you and James?’ Alex asked me. ‘He’s vanished just when you need him and, frankly, the thought of you sitting on that fucking bike terrifies me!’
‘The thought of you getting an STD for the second time in two years terrifies me!’ I fought back.
‘This is where we need one of Vicki’s lectures on statistics. “Everything you do in life carries a risk, you need to be able to assess them”.’ George interjected.
‘Please God, no!’ Alex protested.
‘There’s no need to worry about “me and James”!’ I told them. ‘I’d trust him with my life.’
‘Good, because when you’re on the back of that machine, that’s exactly what you do!’ George said.
‘You’d trust him with your life!’ said Alex thoughtfully. ‘And he fancies you, and you fancy him, and yet you’re not fucking. Why not?’
‘Perhaps I’m worried that Simon has left me with a little something,’ I suggested. It didn’t work.
‘You hadn’t even thought about that,’ said Alex. ‘You’re trying to change the subject, Anna. Was it your decision, or his?’
I didn’t answer.
‘His!’ she announced.
‘Not everything is about sex, Alex,’ I said. ‘We’ve… We… The box… The rules… Trust is… Always be true to each other, whatever happens.’
‘Now you’re starting to worry me, Anna,’ George exclaimed. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘It’s a secret,’ I said with as much certainty as I could muster. I knew that I was right, there definitely was a secret, but I couldn’t remember what it was. I told them what I did know, what I knew in my gut to be true. ‘James and me, we have a lot of history. That’s all you need to know, okay? Let’s talk about something else.’
Alex eyes gleamed.
‘No, I’m not going to talk about Simon,’ I told her. ‘What about your–latest problem, Alex? George knows, I know, and your current bedmates…’
‘Former bedmates,’ Alex interjected.
‘Former bedmates know,’ I continued. ‘Can I tell the rest of the gang, or do you want to do it yourself?’
‘You can let Vicki know,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell Corinne.’ I nodded, and bit my tongue. Despite her bravado, I’d always suspected that Alex never wanted to receive critical judgement from Vicki.
‘Going-to-be-a-doctor Phil was the first to know,’ Alex admitted. ‘I checked symptoms with him, and got the whole sexual health lecture from him when I did. I don’t need another one. Let’s talk about George, instead. He still doesn’t have a girl, not since he split up with Emily. I think he and Vicki would be good together. What do you think?’
George began to protest, but it made no difference. We spent lunch good-naturedly teasing him. Afterwards, they walked me into my afternoon seminar. There was no sign of Simon, but they were worried.
‘There won’t be anyone waiting for you when you finish,’ George said. ‘We’re both in lectures.’
‘And Phil’s working, and so is Corinne,’ Alex added. ‘Oh, and Corinne said I was to tell you that there might be a waitressing job coming up at her place.’
‘And Vicki’s meeting her tutor to discuss her assignment for this term,’ I added.
‘And so’s Brad,’ George told me. ‘Sorry, Anna. I’ll skip lectures, if you want.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ I assured them. ‘Brad saw Simon hanging about after my first lecture, and you two both saw him after my second. If I vanish without a trace, I’m sure Vicki will let you know. It won’t happen, but if it does, you know who to finger for the crime.’
They looked worried. ‘Honestly, I’ll be fine,’ I tried again. ‘This is an optional European Court of Human Rights seminar. One, it’s optional. Two, it’s human rights law.’ I held up my fingers as I made the points. ‘I can guarantee that Simon won’t be here. He probably didn’t even register the fact that it’s happening.’ As I spoke, I knew I was right. I knew how Simon worked, and the worm of suspicion had done its work; I knew what Simon wanted.
I was right, of course. The seminar room was crowded, but there was no sign of Simon. Unfortunately, in my attempt to reassure my friends, I’d forgotten about Stu. When I left the room, two hours later, I spotted him skulking behind the drinks machine. He was on his phone and, when he realised I’d spotted him, he hastily ended the call. Keeping my gaze on him, I closed in for the kill. He assessed his options, and decided he’d have to stay and face me.
‘Don’t say anything, Stu,’ I said cheerfully. ‘You don’t need to.’
‘Oh, hi, Anna. Were you in the seminar? I didn’t see you. Some interesting points about the increased need for…’
‘C’mon,’ I ordered, strolling past him. ‘Don’t dawdle. You’ve had your orders. Simon wants you to keep an eye on me until he gets here, doesn’t he?’ Staring into his worried face, I saw that I was right, and stopped. As I continued my stream-of-consciousness speculations, I needed to see his reaction. ‘You’ve got a problem, haven’t you?’
‘Problem?’ he asked. I could see he was beginning to panic.
‘Simon wants you to slow me down, to keep me here. But the problem is, now that I’ve stopped, you haven’t got me, I’ve got you!’
‘Got me?’ His panic was rising.
‘Exactly.’ I nodded. ‘You can keep me here until he gets here, but if you stay with me, I’m going to ask you a lot of awkward questions. Such as…’
I paused, looked into his face, and threw him a bouncer.
‘That girl I walked in on–was she the first?’
‘I… I… I don’t know,’ he lied.
‘Hesitation!’ I pounced. ‘That means you do know. And if you know, and you’re not prepared to tell me, to protest that he’s not like that, it can only mean that she definitely wasn’t the first. What do you think Simon will say when I tell him that you told me? You’re going to be in so much trouble, Stu. Bye.’
I stepped past him. He followed, protesting. ‘Please, Anna, don’t.’
‘Don’t what?’ I asked without breaking my stride. ‘Don’t go? Don’t tell Simon that you told me he cheated on me with several other girls?’
‘I didn’t say that!’ We’d reached the street, and he was beginning to sound desperate, so I stopped again.
‘No, you didn’t, not exactly. But who will Simon believe?’
Stu was speechless.
‘That’s a terrible indictment, you know,’ I continued in a friendlier tone. I was on a roll, and I was beginning to enjoy his discomfort. ‘Your “friend” Simon is more likely to believe me than you. I’m better off without him, Stu, and you would be, too. I could go, now, and you wouldn’t stop me. You couldn’t stop me! You’re in a bad place you know. It really doesn’t matter whether I stay, and tell him what you’ve just told me, or go and leave you as a failure.’
‘I didn’t tell you anything!’ he protested.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ I said. I was beginning to feel sorry for him, so I pressed my point before I had second thoughts. ‘The outcome will be exactly the same for you. You’ll be in trouble with Simon, unless…’
‘Unless?’ He clutched at the straw I offered him.
‘Unless you tell me why you’re all stalking me.’
‘Stalking?’ Stu said the word so loudly that a couple of passers-by slowed to see what was happening. He noticed. ‘We’re not… I’m not stalking you, Anna. Simon wants to speak to you, that’s all. I don’t know why, honest!’ He looked, and sounded, very convincing.
‘You know, I think you’re telling me the truth,’ I said sorrowfully. ‘And that’s the saddest thing I’ve heard. You were in that human rights lecture, Stu. You should know that the “I was only following orders” defence isn’t a good one.’
For an instant, he looked horrified, then relief spread across his face. I followed his gaze. Simon and Pete were crossing the road. They were only metres away, but I could also hear a familiar growl, and it was getting louder.
‘Hello Anna,’ Simon smiled as he approached. He turned to his friends. ‘Can you give us a minute, please, guys?’
‘I didn’t tell her anything,’ Stu said.
‘Of course you didn’t, Stu, because you don’t know anything.’ As his friends backed away from us, Simon gave me a smile that reminded me of Obliviator Patterson. I stared into his calculating face, and knew what he wanted.
I smiled back. The growl behind me turned into a purr, and then there was silence. Simon looked over my shoulder.
‘Fuck!’ he said.
‘Hello, James.’ The Tiger’s growl was already familiar to me, so I didn’t need to turn. I raised my voice so that everyone, including Simon’s friends, could hear me. ‘Nothing to worry about, I’m perfectly safe! Simon was about to ask, or beg, or bribe, me into letting him submit my business tax law report as his own. That’s why he offered to “proofread” it for me over the summer.’ Simon’s face told me that the theory that had been forming in my head all day was correct. ‘But it wouldn’t matter if he offered me a million quid, or let me cut off his testicles with a rusty hacksaw, my answer would still be the same. Fuck off, Simon!’
My ex was speechless and shaking with anger. I’d belittled him in front of his friends and that, I knew, was the worst thing I could do. Simon’s star could not be tarnished. But now his friends were staring at him in astonishment. That was enough for me. I turned to face a grinning James. ‘Now, it’s your turn, Jamie. Hogwarts, Muggle, Obliviator Patterson! Explain!’ His smile vanished.
Back to index
Chapter 11: VisitorVisitor
It was if I was some sort of mythical creature, and James was my unsuspecting victim. I watched him turn to stone under my gaze. The statue before me was open-mouthed, but unable to speak. I could almost hear his mind working as he tried to decide what words he could use to end my spell.
Only the truth could set him free, or so I thought. I was wrong. He was saved by an unlikely ally.
‘And you wonder why I looked elsewhere, Anna!’ Simon snarled vindictively. ‘Explain!’ He tried to copy my accent. He failed, of course, but I heard the contempt in his voice. ‘Yet another selfish demand from the most selfish and demanding girl I’ve met! You’re a prying, nosey, argumentative bitch. That’s why he’ll dump you, too!’ His words were a spear in my back, wounded by their truth, my hold over James was broken.
Assailed by doubt, I stumbled. Had I gone too far? Was I being unreasonable? To my relief, James’ expression said otherwise. The sadness on his face had been replaced by an angry determination, an emotion more controlled than I could hope to achieve.
‘She needs to be put in her place, “Jamie”. Tell her to piss off, or give her a good slap!’ Simon’s advised.
‘Annie’s “place” is wherever she wants it to be, not wherever someone decides to put her,’ said James quietly. ‘And it took me way too long to learn that taking relationship advice from someone who cheated on his own girlfriend is a very bad idea.’
I looked curiously into James’ sad eyes. His attention was focussed on Simon, but he seemed to sense my stare. For an instant, he glanced at me, and I saw a spark of mischief. Turning towards Pete and Stu, he asked, ‘Did we all just hear Simon make an incitement to violence?’ His shrewd question, and the sly wink he gave me, were all I needed to recover from Simon’s wounding words.
‘It’s obvious you’re no legal expert, “incitement” was the old common law offence,’ I told James firmly. ‘Part two of the Serious Crime Act 2007 replaced it with the offence of assisting or encouraging crime. But you’re forgiven, because you’re a layman,’ I turned to Simon’s friends. ‘Law students should know better.’
As I tried to stare Simon and his friends down, James stepped alongside me. That was enough to make them quail. Before they turned to flee, Simon gave me a glower that promised payback. Because of that, I couldn’t resist taking a parting shot.
‘Remember what I said, Stu. You’re better than this.’ The instant the words left my mouth, Pete and Simon turned on their companion. I wondered if I’d done the right thing.
‘You’re totally amazing when you’re angry,’ James murmured.
Stepping in front of me, he gently placed his hand on the back of my head and moved in for a kiss. His hazel eyes stared into mine. I relaxed and accepted his approach. Our lips met. Slow and seemingly calm, his kiss was as deceptive as the soft caress of water over rock. Deep inside, I knew that over time this gentle action had the power to carve out something deep and permanent.
When we finally separated, I was breathless. James didn’t give me the chance to speak. ‘You asked me a question, and I haven’t answered it.’ I’d never seen him so serious. ‘I will, but not here, not now, and not today.’ He paused, waiting for me to protest, to argue. I didn’t. I simply stared into his face and waited.
‘I want to tell you everything,’ he admitted. ‘I will tell you everything. But telling you everything right now would get me into a lot of trouble.’ He seemed to sense the question forming in my head, and sadness clouded his features. ‘Even telling you why and how it would get me into trouble could get me into trouble.’ A hoarfrost of frustration coated his words, and I shivered in their intensity. ‘I hate it! It’s a wall, a barrier between us, Annie; I know it is. I don’t want to lie to you. Unfortunately, the only alternative to lying is to not answer. I’ve been trying to figure out a way round it, but without success. I’d like to promise that I’ll be able to give you your answer tomorrow. I can’t make that promise, but if I can’t find a solution soon… Will you wait for me to answer, please?’
‘Of course I will,’ I assured him. His internal conflict was spilling out through his watery eyes. ‘But I have another question for you.’
‘I hope it’s an easy one,’ he said with feeling.
‘Of all the buildings on all the streets in all of Sheffield, you rode onto mine,’ I said. ‘How did you know where I was?’
There was a puzzled look on his face. ‘Was that a quote?’ he asked.
‘A much-bowdlerized misquote from Phil’s favourite film. Even so, you must recognise it,’ I said.
He shook his head.
‘Philistine,’ I added. He shrugged.
‘I knew where you were, because I asked,’ James admitted. ‘Rosie called me last night and told me that she’d met you. She wanted to let me know that you’d remembered her ex-boyfriend.’ The worry and concern in his eyes was back.
‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘But I don’t see how I can have remembered him.’
‘Nor do I. Rose has no idea either. It’s impossible. No one should be able to… I shouldn’t have said that. I think that if I stick around here long enough, Annie, I’ll spill my guts regardless of the consequences for both of us. I shouldn’t have said that, either!’ He shook his head in despair. ‘Back to your question. While Rose and I were talking, she mentioned the fact that Simon and his pals had been following you. I was worried. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been because from what I just saw, you had things under control. In my defence, I wasn’t the only worried one. Late last night, Vicki messaged me…’
‘Vicki? Where did she get your numb…’ I provided the answer myself. ‘The note with your phone number on it–the one you pushed through my door on the night we met–it’s still on the fridge. It’s right next to my timetable.’
James nodded. ‘Vicki was obviously worried.’
‘It’s her default state. You get used to it,’ I snapped sarcastically. James’ face fell. ‘That was really nasty of me, sorry,’ I admitted. ‘Go on, please.’
‘Vicki was, rightly, worried, so I left early this morning. I’d hoped to get here before your seminar finished.’ He threw his arms in the air, arched his back, and stretched. ‘I’ve been on the bike for seven hours, with a short break for a cuppa and a sandwich at Penrith. I made really good time to Penrith, but there was a crash on the A66 over the Pennines, and that made me a few minutes late.’
‘Don’t worry about it. If you’d arrived on time, Simon wouldn’t have tried to confront me.’
‘It might have gone very differently,’ suggested James.
‘But it didn’t.’
‘I hope you’re right. I didn’t like that last look he gave you,’ James told me. He stretched again. ‘I can’t offer you a lift, no helmet. I can walk you home, if that’s okay. I need to walk for a while, stretch my legs. I’ll need to find somewhere to park Tiger, first.’
‘I was intending to walk home,’ I hesitated. Now he was here, I wanted to spend more time with James.
‘I’d like to catch up with you, too,’ James told me, somehow figuring out what I was thinking. ‘But, while we walk, you can tell me what’s been going on while I’ve been away. You’ve given me a lot to think about, Annie. I need to figure out a way to answer your questions. I have a deadline to meet, too. If I don’t complete the article I’ve been commissioned to write, I won’t get paid for it.’
He was being sensible. ‘And I need to write up my notes from the seminar before I forget everything,’ I confessed.
‘I don’t think it’s possible for you to forget everything,’ he observed. ‘I’m beginning to wonder if you forget anything. I’ll walk you home, come back here for the bike, and I’ll pick you up for swimming as usual, tomorrow, okay?’
‘And after swimming, we can spend the day together, because I’ve seen your timetable. Your Friday lectures don’t start until next week.’
‘Sounds good to me,’ I said. ‘You can park Tiger over there,’ I indicated the half-dozen bike bays outside the faculty building.
James followed my pointing finger. ‘I can’t; they’re marked: electric vehicles only.’
‘True, but last year Professor Landis told us that there’s no traffic regulation order, so the signs are unenforceable. Things like that really annoy him. He actively encouraged us to use the bays. I don’t think he cares whether the signs are removed, or if the council make them legal with an order, he simply hates it when things aren’t done correctly.’
‘That’s good enough for me.’ James dashed back to his bike. I watched him start it up and ride past me into one of the vacant bays. There was a Zero parked in one bay, an EV-neo in another, and a brand-new e-vino in a third. All three were plugged into the chargers. James examined the Zero, but ignored the two mopeds.
‘Thinking of buying one?’ I asked.
‘Can’t afford it,’ he said.
‘Really?’ I asked. ‘The initial cost is a bit high, but with petrol being the price it is, I’m surprised you can afford to keep Tiger running. How far can you get on a tank?’
‘I don’t really pay much attention to things like that,’ he admitted. ‘D’you really think you’ve sorted Simon out? It looked to me like he was plotting something.’
‘He probably is,’ I thought about it. ‘I don’t know what he thinks he can do to me to make me change my mind, but I’m going to make sure he doesn’t try to steal my report!’
Pulling my tablet from my bag, I jumped up to sit on the wall next to the bike park. James stood in front of me and watched, fascinated, as I worked. Settling myself, I wrote a short message to the business tax law lecturer, enclosed a copy of the latest version of my report, and hit send.
‘Sorted,’ I said happily, dropping my tablet back into my bag.
I shuffled forwards, preparing to drop from the wall. James stretched out his hand to offer assistance. Instead of protesting how capable I was, I took it. He supported me as I jumped down from my perch, and once I was on the ground, he didn’t let go. We made the journey hand-in-hand, our fingers interlocked. While we walked, we discussed what Simon had been up to. I told James how my friends had been there for me during the day, and we’d almost reached the flat before I remembered to ask him about his research trip.
I could tell by the excitement in his voice that he’d been successful. He was having to hold himself back from telling me everything, but he’d managed to find an account, by Friar Tuck himself, of the truth behind the legend of Robin Hood. Despite my questions, he refused to divulge the details, but promised to let me see the article after its publication.
When we reached my flat, our doorstep kiss was long. It was accelerating towards infinity when we sensed a watching presence. Pulling apart, we turned to face our observer. It was Vicki. She hadn’t spoken, or done anything to disturb us, but I knew from her self-satisfied smirk that she’d been there for some time. James slid his arm around my waist, and I sensed his amusement.
‘James is back,’ I said redundantly. ‘And, I want a word with you.’ She looked worried.
‘She wants to thank you for everything you did for her,’ James took pity on Vicki. ‘And I do, too. Thanks, Vicki, I was a little late, but it worked out okay.’ He patted my hip. ‘I’ll leave you to tell Vicki all about your adventures, Annie. I have notes to turn into an article. I’ll be here at seven in the morning to take you to the pool. Bye, ladies.’ With that, he released me.
‘We’re not ladies,’ I told him firmly.
‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry for my mistake!’ His voice was posh and pompous. ‘Goodbye, gentlemen.’
‘Bye, James.’ Vicki was laughing as she replied.
‘Don’t encourage him,’ I warned her.
As we watched him saunter down the street, Vicki leant closer to me. ‘Have you completely given up your attempts to make him call you Anna?’ she asked.
‘I’ve simply stopped noticing,’ I admitted.
It was a cold day, and I’d forgotten to pick up my gloves. I’d slid my hands inside the pockets of James’ leather jacket on the ride back down to the pool and had done the same on the return trip. As we approached my flat, James had started to sing “Magpie”. I’d joined in with the harmonies almost unthinkingly.
‘Seven’s for a secret, never told,’ we concluded, and every possible connotation of those words rattled around inside my head. He seemed to be similarly affected, and we rode on in silence for almost a minute.
‘I set that song as my alarm, weeks ago,’ I told him.
‘Did you? I wonder what brought it into my head?’ he asked.
‘That’s what I was going to ask you! Why that song?’ We both lapsed back into a thoughtful silence. It didn’t end until we dismounted.
‘It means something, doesn’t it?’ he asked.
I’d come to the same conclusion. ‘Can you remember what?’
‘No, can you?’ His response was a mixture of hope and desperation. He wanted to know why the song was in his head just as much as I did.
‘No, sorry,’ I admitted. From the corner of my eye, as I took off my helmet, I saw Vicki’s bedroom curtains twitch. Ignoring the movement, I looked up into James’ face.
‘We can ask Rosie in a couple of hours,’ he suggested. ‘She might know, although–as she’s fond of reminding me–she doesn’t know everything.’
All through our swim session James had been unnaturally quiet. The evasive look on his face when he mentioned our lunch date with his cousin made me believe that there was something else going on. Pushing the song from my mind, I allowed my curiosity to take control.
‘What is it that you’re not telling me?’ The moment I spoke I knew that I’d phrased the question badly.
‘We’ve already established that there are a lot of things I’m not telling you,’ James admitted. ‘What particular “something I’m not telling you” are you asking about? I reserve the right to “no comment”.’
‘I’m asking about lunch with Rosie.’
‘I’ve told you, we’re meeting Rose. Don’t you want to meet her? I hoped that if we got together for a chat, it might help us figure stuff out. The table’s booked, but we can cancel.’
‘No,’ I told him, still suspicious. ‘You’re right. Seeing the two of you together might jog my memory. Tea, Darjeeling?’
‘Please.’ He nodded as I opened the door. ‘Good session this morning, that was a mighty fast freestyle.’
‘Thanks. Yours was good, but you’re still letting your fingers open after the first five hundred metres or so,’ I spoke over my shoulder as he followed me up the stairs. When I reached the landing, the living room door was open. Vicki, looking rather flushed, gave me a nervous smile. ‘What’ve you done now?’ I demanded.
As I stepped into the room, someone stepped out from behind the door, grabbed me by the waist, and lifted me into the air.
‘Boo!’ the voice in my ear wasn’t the one I feared, but as I was already in mid-squeal, that didn’t help calm me down.
My feet were still dangling several inches from the ground as my idiot assailant turned me around. Now, both he and I were facing James, and I was between them. It was a smart move. I watched the clench-fisted tension drop from James’ fighting stance. His expression shifted from worry through astonishment before finally settling on delight.
‘Put me down, you fucking imbecile!’ I ordered, trying to wriggle free. My heart was hammering, and I focussed on being angry to prevent tears of relief from flowing.
‘Only if you promise not to assault me,’ my assailant said, not loosening his hold at all.
‘Fuck off,’ I told him.
‘She promises,’ James said. The ridiculous grin on his face made me realise that I needed to calm down. As my heartrate plummeted back towards normal, I concentrated on my breathing. Vicki gave a worried whimper; James simply watched in amusement. The arms around my waist slackened their grip.
‘Put me down please, Henry,’ I asked politely.
He released me. Rather than round on him, which was my first instinct, I stepped aside to watch as James and my brother faced each other. Neither one moved; it seemed to me that, despite their grins, they were both a little fearful. Henry broke the silence.
‘Areet?’ he asked.
That stupid greeting was enough to make James relax. ‘Mareet, yareet?’ he replied happily.
‘Aye, mareet, Jamie,’ Henry told him. Making fists, he cracked his knuckles. ‘You shagging my sister?’ I glared at him, but he wasn’t watching. He was still sizing up James.
‘No. Would it be a problem if I was?’
‘Oi, I’m right here,’ I reminded them. They both ignored me. It was like being six again. I only just stopped myself from stamping my foot.
‘At least you know what she’s like,’ observed Henry thoughtfully. The years fell away from them, too. If I was six, they were nine, and I could see the “let’s tease Annie” expression forming on their faces.
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ I interjected. ‘If…’
‘She’s just the same as she always was, but swearier,’ James told him, ignoring me.
‘I don’t fink swearier is a proper word, Jamie,’ Henry told him. They both burst out laughing, and I knew I’d lost.
‘Fucking fuck,’ I said.
They walked forwards and embraced each other. Shaking my head in despair, I turned to Vicki, hoping for an explanation.
‘He’s lovely, your brother,’ Vicki told me.
I shook my head in disagreement. It was a waste of time, as she was staring at the muscle-bound moron like he was a Greek god. She had some justification; they were still embracing, and Henry had lifted James from the floor.
‘If you’re that happy to see each other, you should get a room,’ I advised.
That didn’t work. They simply puckered their lips at each other, then laughed even louder.
‘Fuck,’ I said again.
‘Please, Anna!’ Vicki begged me to stop swearing.
Henry finally dropped James; they turned to face me and folded their arms. One glance at Vicki told me that she was amused by their childish antics and was unlikely to ally herself with me.
‘D’you know why he’s here?’ I demanded of her. A glance at her face allowed me to draw my own conclusions. ‘You told him about Simon, didn’t you?’
‘I was worried about what Simon was up to. I told C7, James, and your brother.’
‘Where did you get his number?’ I asked.
‘I gave it to her,’ Henry told me. ‘You were in one of your “I-can-cope” moods when I phoned a few weeks ago, but I was worried. You’re still on my friends list and Vicki’s on yours, so I messaged her the day after I called. We swapped phone numbers a week later. Getting in touch with her wasn’t exactly complicated.’
‘Obviously not, because you managed it,’ I told him. James shook his head at me, and Vicki tutted. Henry simply ignored me.
‘You’ve got a good friend in the lovely Vicki, sis. She’s been keeping me up to date with your extraordinary escapades. She thought you were in trouble, so here I am. Big brother to the rescue!’
‘I wasn’t in trouble,’ I told him. ‘I was in complete control.’
‘You didn’t complain when Brad turned up, or George and Alex and James,’ Vicki sprang to my brother’s defence.
‘Bloody hell, Vicki,’ I snapped. ‘Don’t you know that internet romances are dangerous things. You sound like…’ I saw her face, and I knew that my world had taken another unexpected turn. ‘Sorry, Vicki. You!’ I turned to Henry. ‘Come with me, now.’ I stormed from the room.
‘Big Hen’s in ginormorous trouble with little sis,’ he told James and Vicki as, with annoyingly mock meekness, he followed me into my bedroom.
I walked over to the window, turned, and asked, ‘Have you been stringing Vicki along?’
‘I think she fancies you.’
‘Seriously?’ He asked, the hope in his voice made me even more worried.
‘She’s a maths student; you’re a mechanic! She’s in Sheffield; you’re in Blyth!’
‘Newcastle,’ he said. ‘I’m in Newcastle, Anna. I changed jobs six months ago. Better prospects, more responsibility, and a lot more money. I did change my status and make an announcement.’ He frowned. ‘I keep an eye on you online, make sure you’re okay.’
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I’m a crappy sister, aren’t I?’ I sighed.
‘You’re the only one I have, so I’ll have to make the best of it.’ He smiled. ‘Vicki and I have been messaging each other every day since I spoke to you. I was worried about smarmy Simon, and I wanted to make sure about Jamie. She’s really nice.’
‘She is, but she’s not your type,’ I told him.
‘I don’t have a type,’ Henry protested.
‘Kayleigh, Sheera, Sally-Ann, and…’ I rapped the window frame with my knuckles and raised my voice by more octaves than I could actually manage. ‘Sky!’ Unable to shrill more than that one word, I returned my voice to normal. ‘What colour hair?’
‘They were all blondes,’ Henry admitted. ‘But…’
‘Height!’ I snapped.
‘Sally-Ann was your height; the others were a couple of inches shorter.’
‘And how many A-levels did they have?’
‘Vicki is clever, and tiny, and…’
‘I haven’t asked her out or anything. We’ve just chatted online, mostly about you and Simon and James.’ He paused. ‘At least, that’s how it started. I told her she needs to stand up to you more, and I think she’s beginning to follow my advice. Sometimes you’re a steamroller, sis. You go where you want regardless of who or what’s in the way. I’m bloody sure you’ve flattened Vicki a few times since you met her, but she’s still got your back, and you’ve got hers.’
‘You really do fancy her, don’t you?’ I asked.
‘She hasn’t got a boyfriend. I haven’t got a girlfriend, not since…’ he raised his voice to a squeak, ‘Sky.’
I had to smile.
‘You never liked my girlfriends, Annie,’ Henry observed. ‘But I never liked your boyfriends, either. Let’s just not interfere with each other’s love lives, okay? I like James. I didn’t realise how much I missed him until just now. That hug was pretty intense, like we were both ten again. But if it comes to the crunch, I’m on your side.’
‘Okay, no interference,’ I agreed. ‘And no exceptions.’ Henry shook his head in disagreement.
‘One exception,’ demanded Henry. ‘If you lose what little sanity you have and go back to Simon, I’ll lamp him one.’
I was still grinning when we returned to the living room.
‘Sorted?’ James asked.
My brother and I exchanged a glance. ‘Sorted,’ we agreed.
‘Excellent,’ James said. ‘I’ve already apologised to Vicki, Hen. Annie and I are taking you away from her–we’re going out to lunch.’
‘Why can’t…’ Hen began
‘They’re meeting Rose Weasley, Henry,’ Vicki told him.
It was obvious from his expression that my brother wanted to invite her along, and that made Vicki as happy as a flower in sunshine.
‘Old friends together. I’d be the outsider. I understand.’ Vicki was at her selfless best, but showing a level of sneakiness that surprised me. I decided that I wouldn’t tell Henry that she had a one o’clock lecture, so couldn’t have come with us even if he’d asked.
‘Of course you do,’ Henry told her earnestly. ‘I’ll make it up to you. I’ll take you out tomorrow night, wherever you want to go.’
I watched Vicki blossoming in the light of his words and clenched my teeth. James was somewhere else and didn’t seem to have noticed what was going on between Hen and Vicki. He was positively bouncing about our lunch date.
‘It’s great that you’re here, Hen. We’re meeting… Rosie… for lunch. You have to come with us.’
‘Little Rosie-posie? Wouldn’t miss it for the world! How’s life been treating you, Jamie? How’s the rest of the gang?’
‘You’ll find out soon enough,’ James told him.
As he spoke, I saw a momentary annoyance with himself. He covered it quickly, but when he looked across to see if I’d realised what he’d just said, I pounced.
‘James Potter!’ I waved a scolding finger at him. ‘I knew you were keeping something secret from me and now I know what. It’s not just Rosie we’re meeting, is it?’
He couldn’t deny it. ‘I wanted to surprise you!’ he protested.
‘Seriously?’ Henry interjected, picking up on the clues. ‘Everyone’s here?’
‘Al and Hugo don’t finish their shift until…’ He glanced at the wall clock; it was twenty to eleven. ‘They’ll be on their way now. Lily was waiting for me at Rose’s place when I got back last night.’
‘Lovely little Lily-loo,’ Henry observed, laughing. ‘How is she?’
‘Try calling her that and you’ll find out very quickly,’ James said with a shiver. ‘Your sister’s as placid as … as … as something that’s very placid, compared to Lily.’ James was forced to finish his sentence over Henry’s laughter.
We don’t have to leave for an hour,’ I reminded the boys. ‘I’ll make some tea, and we can keep Vicki company until then. We can catch up with the news of the Drakestone Seven when we’re all together.’
‘The Drakestone Seven,’ Henry said. ‘The name was Lily’s idea, wasn’t it?’
‘Yeah,’ James said. ‘But you came up with the idea, Hen.’
‘What’re you talking about?’ Vicki asked.
‘Long story,’ James began.
‘Too long,’ Henry said. ‘A couple of days ago, you said you were having problems with an assignment, Vicki. Did you get it sorted?’
I went into the kitchen and filled the kettle.
As we walked through Weston Park, my head was a busy beehive. Thoughts buzzed in my ears, anticipation honeyed my emotions. Lost in thought, I’d been dawdling behind Hen and James; they were discussing my brother’s job. Pushing my way between them, I grabbed James by the hand and linked with my brother. The action was enough to break Henry’s chain of thought, and his explanation of whatever garage stuff he’d been boring James with came to a stuttering halt.
‘When’s the last time we were all together?’ I asked.
‘That’s a very good question. It’s the one Rose desperately wants an answer to,’ James said.
‘We were fifteen, it must’ve been the summer of twenty,’ opined Henry as we approached the university. ‘Then, the next year, you simply didn’t get in touch with us. We even went down to Drakeshaugh, but it was locked up tight.’
‘Interesting,’ said James. ‘That’s not what I remember, but we’d better save that conversation until we meet the others.’
‘Fair enough,’ Henry dismissed the conversation. ‘Which one is the maths faculty building?’
‘I didn’t know you were interested in maths,’ observed James. As he spoke, he squeezed my hand, and I knew that he had been paying attention at the flat.
‘He’s not, he’s interested in one particular mathematician,’ I said.
‘Really?’ He turned to my brother. ‘Henry John Charlton,’ he said loudly. ‘I hope your intentions towards my new friend Vikisha Banerjee are entirely honourable.’ Several people turned to look, and Henry began to blush.
‘I doubt it,’ I said. ‘I saw the curtains in Vicki’s bedroom twitch when we arrived back from the pool. I wonder what they were doing in there?’
‘We heard the bike,’ Hen protested. ‘Vicki went over to her window to make sure it was you.’
‘Notice the phrasing, James,’ I pointed out.
‘She went to the window, and he saw her go.’ James squeezed my hand again, then leant forwards to take a good look at my brother. ‘What were you doing in her bedroom, Henry?’
Henry’s blush deepened. ‘James Sirius Potter, you traitor,’ he protested. ‘Have you forgotten that we’re supposed to gang up on Annie? It takes both of us to keep her under control.’
‘I rather like the out…’ James stopped and tried again. ‘The uncontrolled Annie.’
‘You were going to say out of control,’ said Henry.
‘Yes, he was,’ I growled.
‘I apologise, Henry,’ James cried in alarm. ‘Help!’
We laughed, and I slipped my arms around their waists. We were still chuckling as we turned down a road running diagonally away from Brook Hill.
‘This is the Maths department,’ I said, releasing them just long enough to indicate the building. Once we get over the next road, and the tramline, the restaurant isn’t far.’
‘You really know your way around this place, don’t you?’ Henry observed a few minutes later, as I dragged my men down a side street. ‘Anyone else getting nervous about this meeting?’
‘Yeah,’ I admitted.
Me too,’ said James, ‘And that’s ridiculous, because I’m related to every one of them, and I’ve seen them all a lot more recently than you two have.’
‘There, crossing the road,’ I said. The guys followed my eyes. The two women couldn’t have been more different.
Rose wasn’t as scruffy-looking as the last time I’d met her. She was wearing a brightly patterned ankle-length skirt and a grey duffel coat. I couldn’t see her face because the hood was pulled up, and she was half-turned away, looking down at her cousin. Nevertheless, her tall, slender figure and gangling gait made her easy to recognise.
If Lily was taller than her mother, it wasn’t by very much. She reached above Rose’s shoulder only because of the spike-heeled, knee-boots she wore. Her tan leather jacket was very fashionable and matched her boots; her black trousers looked like they’d been painted onto her legs.
Henry waved wildly. ‘Rosie-posy! Lily-loo!’ he bellowed.
‘They’re going to kill him,’ said James.
Back to index
Chapter 12: SevenSeven
Lily was mid-stride when Henry shouted. Twisting, she planted both feet firmly on the ground. The youngest of the Potters was set firm and facing us almost before Rose had registered my brother’s words. Staring in astonishment at us, Lily gave us a smile that propelled me and–I was certain–Henry back to First School.
‘It really is Annie,’ she bellowed delightedly. ‘And Hennery-Pennery, too! What are you doing here, Hennery?’
Lily and I had been so close! As she scampered towards us, the youngest of the Potters seemed to have grown up into a combination of all of my best memories of both her and her mother. She wasn’t tall, and her flame-red hair was long and flowing. Her open and friendly smile was the final touch that transformed her into a bespectacled version of Ginny Potter.
Rose, nowhere near as quick to react as Lily, strode after her cousin wearing an entirely different expression. Pale-faced and worried, she was staring at my brother in shock and disbelief. From her expression, she might have just seen a ghost.
‘One of our teachers is a ghost,’ James whispered.
Startled, I looked up at him. Was he reading my mind? It seemed unlikely, as he wasn’t even looking at me. The answer I gave myself was even more of a surprise to me. Trying to figure out why I would believe that eye contact was needed for mind reading, I took a long look at James. He was concentrating on the two young women approaching us, and it seemed that he hadn’t actually spoken. I needed to be certain.
‘What did you just say?’ I asked.
‘Me?’ He stared into my face, looking for confirmation. I nodded. ‘I said, “they’re going to kill him”,’ he reminded me. ‘This’ll be good! Although Rosie looks strangely worried.’
I wasn’t interested in Rosie, because Lily was confronting my brother. ‘Hennery Pennery,’ she said seriously, folding her arms and taking up a decent approximation of her mother’s scolding stance. ‘If you ever call me Lily-loo again, I will constantly call you Hennery Pennery.’
‘It’s a deal!’ he declared, holding out a hand for her to shake. Her joyous laughter echoed down the street, infecting both James and I. Even Rose gave a brief smile. I beamed when, ignoring the hand of friendship Henry had extended, Lily hugged him.
Upon releasing him, she turned to Rose and demanded, ‘Why didn’t you tell me Hen was going to be here, too?’ and then closed on me.
Grabbing me by the waist, Lily pulled me into a surprisingly powerful hug. I threw my arms around her and responded in kind. I’d always been taller than Lily, but I was in flats, and she was in three-inch heels, so we were almost eye to eye when we embraced.
‘Good to see you, Lily,’ I told her. ‘You’re looking great.’
‘It’s good to see you too, Annie,’ she replied. ‘You look great, too!’ She lowered her voice, and mischievously added, ‘Although, to be honest, I’m not sure about the hair!’
‘It’s a work in progress,’ I admitted, laughing. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed her forthright comments. Squeezing her as tightly as I could, and pressing my cheek against hers in an attempt to conceal my tears of joy, I whispered, ‘It really is great to see you, Lily.’
‘I’ve missed you,’ admitted Lily softly. We didn’t fully release each other; I couldn’t bring myself to physically part from her. Instead, grinning like Cheshire cats, we held each other’s shoulders and continued our examination. I felt a warm glow spread through my body.
Removing one hand, I ran it through my curls. ‘My ex-boyfriend liked it short, straight, and very blonde,’ I explained. ‘Another few weeks and it’ll be long enough to be trimmed and restyled.’
‘For the idiot?’ she asked, nodding at her brother.
‘Hey!’ James protested. ‘I resemble that remark.’ Henry, of course, laughed at James’ terrible joke.
‘No, for me,’ I told Lily firmly, staring into her smiling face.
‘Why are you here, Henry?’ Unlike Lily, Rose’s first words to my brother were a demand.
Lily opened her eyes wide, pulled her chin back, and gave us her “Rosie’s off on one again” grimace. Although I hadn’t seen it in years, I recognised it and laughed. Poor Rosie had never been a natural rule-breaker, and she’d usually been the last to agree to whatever hare-brained scheme we’d cooked up.
‘Nice to see you, too, Rosie-posie,’ Henry said. Moving quickly, he grabbed her around the waist, hugged her, and lifted her off her feet. She squealed in panic. ‘Good to see you haven’t changed,’ he told her as he dropped her back to earth.
‘Why…’ Rose began her demand again.
‘Let’s go inside,’ I suggested, indicating the restaurant.
‘Good idea,’ said James.
I took his outstretched hand and, with tingling fingers, led them towards the restaurant. When we reached the entrance, James released me and pushed the door open. Holding it, he ushered us all inside. I went first, and walked over to the lectern. Both Rose and Lily had linked with my brother. Lily was smiling and joking. Although Rose was a little more relaxed, she was now wearing the pinch-lipped expression I’d always associated with her being certain that one or more of us–and it was usually James and Henry–was about to do something she knew the parents wouldn’t approve of.
‘We’ve a table booked, for seven,’ I told the hostess, a woman in a green polo shirt and black trousers.
The woman pulled her pad from the pocket of her apron and swiped it into action. ‘Seven? What’s the name?’ she asked, looking a little worried.
I was trying to guess–Weasley or Potter–when Rose provided the answer.
‘Weasley,’ she told the waiter. ‘But the table was booked for six, not seven. That won’t be a problem, will it? I didn’t know he was going to be here.’
When she indicated my beefy big brother, he stuck out his bottom lip and made it quiver. Rubbing his eyes with his fists, Henry then pretended to cry. ‘Rosie-posy doesn’t love Hennery.’ Giving a dramatic sob, he threw back his head and covered his eyes with his forearm. ‘She booked a table for a gang get-together but she didn’t invite me!’
‘There, there, poor, sad, and sorrowful Henry.’ I reached over to give my brother’s back a conciliatory rub, but static electricity arced between us before I could touch him. We both flinched, and I felt cold sweat trickle down my chest.
Henry gasped and lowered his arm. ‘Sorrowful! It shouldn’t be me!’ he exclaimed seriously. ‘We’re supposed to sing the song all together, or in order of our ages. Jamie should be the…’ He took a deep breath and sang, ‘One…’ He got no further. James began to sing at the same moment Henry did.
‘One’s for sorrow.’ It was almost as if James couldn’t help himself. He stared at me, and I could see the astonishment on his face.
‘Two’s for joy,’ Henry joined in tunefully. My brother seemed to be cheerfully unaware of the sudden change in the atmosphere.
‘Three’s… for a girl,’ added Rose. She was flat and a little embarrassed to find herself singing in a restaurant. Rose had always been nervous about singing, but the edge of worry in her voice was unusual. It was almost as if she was trying not to utter the words. I prepared myself to fill in, but I didn’t have to.
‘Four’s for a boy,’ Al called across from the doorway. He’d arrived just in time for his line.
He was in jeans, a check shirt, and a casual jacket, and he was striding purposefully towards me. Apart from the fact that he wasn’t wearing spectacles, Al was remarkably similar in appearance to his dad. Like Rose, he was decidedly flat. I’d forgotten that he couldn’t sing a note.
‘Five’s for silver,’ I sang, getting my words out just in time. Albus Severus Potter embraced me. It was a gentle squeeze, nevertheless it took my breath away. I felt a little lightheaded.
‘Six for gold,’ Lily, like Al, was no singer; she never had been. Making no attempt to keep to the tune, she simply spoke the words.
As she spoke, Al kissed my cheek, released me, and stared up in astonishment at Henry.
‘Seven’s…’ As Henry gave Al a bear hug, Hugo–who’d followed Al through the door–sang that first word rather tunefully. As I stared at the smart-suited young man who was the baby of our group, he seemed to realise the seriousness of the situation. ‘For a secret, never told.’ His final words, while tuneful, were a warning to us all. Hugo’s reserved and polite handshake sent a tingle up my arm. Everyone fell silent. As Henry knocked Hugo’s hand aside and hugged him, the rest of us stared at each other.
Intimidated by the sudden silence, Hen and Hugo parted. As we stood at the bar, waiting to be seated, it seemed that no one dared speak. Fortunately, a familiar voice broke the silence.
‘Hi, Anna; hello, James,’ Corrine said. ‘Hello, everyone else. I’m Corrine, and I’ll be your waitress this afternoon. What just happened? I hope you don’t mind me asking, but that was an odd greeting, and I’m an expert on odd greetings.’
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘Everyone, this is my friend, Corrine. I didn’t think you’d be working here today. If I’d known, I’d have warned you that James and me…’
‘James and I,’ she said.
‘No, not James and you, James and me,’ I told her, grinning.
‘Corinne is completely correct,’ said Henry pompously. ‘It’s James and I! You always get that wrong, Annabel.’
She stared up at him. ‘You’re Anna’s brother, aren’t you?’ she asked. ‘I can tell.’
‘So full of artless jealousy is guilt, it spills itself in fearing to be spilt,’ he admitted.
Corinne snorted in disbelief. ‘She told us you worked in a garage,’ exclaimed Corinne. ‘But that was Shakespeare, wasn’t it?’
‘Sorry, I thought you were the literature student!’ Henry apologised.
‘I am,’ Corinne admitted.
‘And I work in a garage, yet you’re not certain about my quote! Don’t you know your Hamlet?’ Is it illegal for car mechanics to read Shakespeare?’
‘It’s been a while since I read Hamlet,’ Corrine admitted with a laugh. Turning to me she said, ‘You said he was nothing like you. Liar!’
Before I could reply, James slid his arm around my waist, completely putting me off my stride. Taking advantage of my confusion, he performed the introductions. ‘Corrine,’ he said. ‘Allow me to present: my brother, Al; my sister, Lily; cousins Rosie and Hugo; and you’ve already figured out who this wisest and most noble of men is.’
‘Dat’s me, dat is!’ said Henry goofily. Corrine sniggered.
I wanted to be annoyed, but I found it impossible. Surrounded by my childhood friends, I was floating in a calm pool of joy. I didn’t want to find the strength to throw harsh words into those still and pleasant waters. Rosie was finally smiling, her anxiety dispelled by the magic of our reunion.
‘Lead on, Corinne,’ James suggested.
‘Afore sweet sis vents her spleen,’ Henry added.
‘I’m going to need caffeine,’ Lily added.
‘Does this place have decent cuisine?’ Al asked.
‘If I remember this game right, there are rules we can’t contravene,’ Rosie added smugly.
‘Rosie!’ James was impressed. ‘Any advance on a three-syllable rhyme?’
‘I’m starving,’ said Hugo. ‘I hope that the portions are elephantine!’
‘Woah, big word little Hugo!’ Henry told him. ‘He’s the baby of the group,’ he added by way of explanation to Corinne, who–while still laughing–was trying to get us seated.
‘Yes, and I’m a bit disappointed that I haven’t outgrown you, Hen,’ Hugo said. ‘My dad was bigger than yours.’
‘Taller, certainly,’ Rose corrected her brother.
‘Whatever,’ Hugo shrugged.
James led me around the table. I found myself flanked by James and Henry and facing Lily. Lily was flanked by Hugo and Al. Rosie was left to take the seat that had been hastily added to the end of the table, Al to her left, Henry to her right.
‘Would you like drinks?’ Corinne asked us.
‘Spiced ginger punch for me,’ I said. Henry and James tracked my choice down on the drinks menu.
‘Alcohol free? I’ll have the same,’ James said.
‘And me,’ added Henry.
The others chorused their agreement, and Corinne departed to fill the order. The moment she left, everyone tried to talk at once.
‘Okay, Rosie?’ was Hugo’s query.
Henry started with, ‘You working, Hugo?’
Al tried, ‘How did you know we’d be here, Hen?’
‘Did you plan this, James?’ Rose sounded suspicious.
‘You’re not mad at me, are you sis?’ James addressed Lily.
‘Can’t you do better than James?’ Lily asked me.
‘How are you, Al?’ I asked.
The initial round of questions was followed by nervous laughter, and our enquiries all remained unanswered. Once again, everyone was worried. As no one else was prepared to speak, I rapped the table with my knuckles and asked the only question that really mattered, ‘When’s the last time we were all together? Hugo, you first!’
‘Easy,’ he grinned. ‘It was… No… It was…’ He put his thumb in his mouth and began to gnaw on the nail. ‘I have no idea,’ he admitted. ‘I was sure it was your eleventh birthday party, but it wasn’t.’
‘Lily?’ I asked.
‘It was definitely just after your eleventh birthday, Annie,’ she said. ‘Easter! That meeting where we all told Al that we were the Drakestone Seven, not the Drakestone Eight, so Scorpius couldn’t join the gang.’
‘I was almost fourteen when that happened, Lily,’ said Al. ‘Annie can’t have been eleven.’
‘Scorpius!’ said Henry. ‘That weedy little kid with the weird name. I’d forgotten about him. You still mates with him, Al?’
‘Yes,’ Al glared at Rose as he spoke. She refused to meet his eyes.
‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Lily. ‘I can remember that meeting. We can’t all have forgotten…’
‘We can,’ said Al grimly, his green eyes flashing.
‘Shit! D’you really think we’ve all been…’ Hugo’s query tailed off.
‘Dad wouldn’t let that happen,’ Lily protested.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘So, none of us can remember. I have no fucking clue why not, but you know, don’t you, Al? And so do you, Hugo!’ I pointed an accusatory finger at each of them in turn.
‘I suspect…’ Al began. He sighed. ‘I can’t tell you, Annie.’
‘Fucking hell!’ I threw up my hands in frustration.
‘You can, Al,’ Henry and James spoke together. ‘Yeah!’ they congratulated each other on their agreement by fist-bumping in front of me. I was convinced I saw sparks pass between their fists. ‘We call a meeting!’ they added, still speaking in unison.
‘Agreed,’ I said, slapping my hand down on the table.
James’ hand landed on mine, and Henry’s descended on his.
‘Drakestone Seven,’ said Lily, smacking her hand down on Henry’s with some force.
‘Seven,’ Al agreed, adding his hand to the pile.
‘Seven,’ there was a tremor in Rose’s voice as she leant over and placed her hand on top of Al’s.
‘Last again!’ Hugo complained as his hand joined the others. ‘Seven! But we can’t just have a meeting, James, we have to read the rules first, remember?’
‘The rules!’ we all nodded, happy to be in total agreement with each other.
‘Can anyone actually remember the rules?’ Hugo asked as we withdrew our hands.
While we were pondering this most difficult of questions, Corinne arrived with the drinks. ‘Are you ready to order?’ she asked.
‘No,’ we all admitted.
‘We could share starters,’ I suggested. ‘When I come here with my other friends, we get six starters between the seven of us. Two dadinhos, two empanadas, and two nachos.’
‘It’s a long time since we all ate here, Anna,’ Corinne reminded me.
I nodded sadly. ‘My fault, I know.’
‘Sounds good to me,’ said James.
‘Yeah,’ added Henry.
The others acquiesced, too, and by the time Corinne had tapped her order into the pad, I’d decided on my main course. ‘Vegetable enchiladas, please,’ I told her with a smile.
‘Predictable as ever,’ Corinne told me, shaking her head.
‘James?’ she asked.
James gave his order, and the others followed in turn. We waited for her to leave before resuming the conversation.
‘We need the rules,’ Rose said. ‘You know that! We can’t have a meeting without them.’
We looked at each other, trying to decide what to do. Every one of us knew that Rose was correct, but so far as I could tell, not one of us knew how or why we knew that.
‘D’you think they’ll still be there?’ Al asked.
‘Definitely,’ said Lily.
‘Should I go and get them?’ Hugo asked. ‘It’ll only take…’ His voice waned to nothing under his sister’s withering glare.
‘Five hours,’ said Henry. ‘Two-and-a-half there, and the same back! Off you go, Hugo. I can guarantee that your food will be gone when you get back, and so will we.’
‘We all need to go,’ said James. ‘We’re the Drakestone Seven! We have to meet at the stone. Besides, that’s where the box is!’
‘Yes!’ I was ridiculously excited by his suggestion.
‘Leave Sheffield? I’ve just got here,’ Henry protested.
I was surprised by my brother’s betrayal; he’d been backing me up ever since the others had arrived. When I turned to berate him, I knew why he was arguing.
‘If we set off straight after we’ve eaten, we can probably be at the stone by four, Hen,’ I assured him. ‘Even if we’re up at the stone until after dark, you can still come back here and kip on our sofa tonight. You don’t have to miss your date with Vicki.’
My timing was terrible, I was just finishing when Corinne arrived with the first of our starters.
‘Date with Vicki!’ she exclaimed. Everyone stared at my brother.
‘Ha!’ Corinne exclaimed. ‘I knew it! The breathless way she said “I’ve met him” at our last curry night was a dead giveaway. You’d better not do anything to hurt our Vicki, Henry! Do you want me to misquote Congreve to you?’
‘O fie, Miss, you must not kiss and tell,’ Henry told her.
‘That wasn’t the Congreve quote I was talking about, and you know it,’ said Corinne, laughing.
‘Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,’ Henry began. He waited expectantly, and Corinne added the next line.
‘Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned.’
‘Vicki? Fury?’ James asked.
I shook my head. ‘Hen will be dealing with me, Corinne, and Alex,’ I said.
‘And the guys,’ Corinne added.
‘You’re on your own there, mate,’ James told my brother with feeling.
‘Are you seriously suggesting that we drive, by road, all the way to Drakeshaugh?’ Lily asked.
‘How else would we get there?’ I asked.
‘That’s where the rules are, Lily,’ said Rose firmly as she helped herself to some nachos. ‘Bloody hell,’ she added, mid-chew. ‘Watch that jalapeno, it’s hot!’ She took a gulp of spiced ginger punch.’
Henry shook his head. ‘My car will be charged by now, but it won’t make it home and back to Sheffield tonight, unless I charge it at Drakeshaugh. I don’t suppose…’
‘There isn’t a charger there,’ James told him. ‘And you won’t all fit on Tiger.’ He looked across at his brother and gave him a meaningful look. ‘But you drove here in one of the office pool cars, didn’t you, Al?’
For an instant I thought Al was going to say no, but he didn’t.
‘Oh, yes,’ he nodded. ‘We did, didn’t we, Hugo?’
Hugo, who was wolfing down empanadas as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks, looked momentarily startled, but then nodded.
‘That’s settled, then,’ said Rose firmly. ‘We eat, Al drives us to Drakeshaugh, we have a meeting, and then we drive back here.’
‘I’ll take the Tiger,’ James said.
‘The car’s a seven-seater, isn’t it?’ Rose asked.
‘Yes, but…’ Al began.
‘I think we should all stick together,’ said Rose firmly.
‘Oi, leave some of them starters for the rest of us, Hugo,’ Henry protested.
‘Sorry, but I’m…’
‘Starving!’ we all told him, taking the opportunity to grab some of the starters before he ate everything.
‘He hasn’t changed, has he?’ I asked Lily.
‘Nope,’ she shook her head. ‘Are you okay about a trip to the Drakestone, Annie?’
‘I’m looking forward to it,’ I assured her. ‘I’ve been dreaming about the stone for weeks.’
‘Me, too,’ admitted James.
Around the table, heads nodded, and silence fell once again. We all pondered the circumstances in which we found ourselves. Trapped in a mysterious muddle of misremembered memories, I somehow knew that a meeting was the only way forwards. As I looked around, I was certain that everyone was having the same thoughts. Everyone nodded, and we all started to smile again.
Lily stared across the table at me, a thoughtful expression on her face. ‘Is he the best you can do?’ she asked, glancing dismissively at her brother.
James sighed, while my brother pretended to choke on his nachos.
‘My thoughts exactly,’ Henry agreed.
‘He’s a vast improvement on my ex,’ I said.
‘That’s true,’ said Henry consolingly. ‘But “better than my ex” is a bar set so low that not even an ant could get under it.’
‘And that’s the level of praise I get from my bestest friend inna world,’ said James.
Henry chuckled. ‘Honesty is the best policy.’
‘You don’t even have a girlfriend, Henry,’ I said.
‘True, but I’m working on it,’ he reminded me cheerfully. Looking around the table at the others, he asked, ‘What about you lot, seeing anyone?’
‘Al spends his time in the arms of the pulchritudinous Violet L Moon,’ said James.
‘Pulchritudinous!’ Henry exclaimed. ‘What a lovely word, I’d love to use it myself. Unfortunately, my workmates insist that I eschew ostentatious and obfuscatory sesquipedalian circumlocution.’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Lily asked, confused.
‘He can’t…’ Rose began.
‘He mustn’t…’ James began. They both stopped mid-sentence. Grinning, James indicated that Rose should continue.
‘Henry used big words to tell us that his workmates don’t like him to use big words,’ Rose explained.
The conversation veered off at a tangent, and we were still reminiscing about my dad’s jokey mangling of the language when our main courses arrived. By the time the meal ended, we’d barely talked about ourselves, although we’d caught up on our parent’s lives.
Mr Potter was still working for the Home Office, doing whatever national security work he’d always been doing, and both Al and Hugo were working for him. Mrs Potter was writing a newspaper column for a small local paper, but when I asked for the paper’s website, neither the Potters nor the Weasleys could remember what it was. Al told me that the paper was called The West Country Prophet, but my internet search couldn’t find it. While I searched, the conversation moved on to the Weasleys.
Uncle Ron, like Uncle Harry, was still in the same job, and we reminisced about the remarkable fireworks his company produced. Aunt Hermione, Rose told us, had moved from her civil service job into politics. Worried that she–and by default Rose and Hugo–might not agree with my socialist ideals, and embarrassed by the awkward answers I’d received about Aunt Ginny’s job, I steered well clear of asking any questions. Nothing causes argument and conflict among friends more quickly than politics. It seemed that no one else wanted to pursue that topic, so we moved on to my parents.
‘Dad’s well,’ I said in answer to a question from Lily.
‘Apart from high blood pressure,’ Henry added. ‘He’s got to see the doctor again next week. Mum thinks they’ll be putting him on tablets.’
‘They haven’t told me about that!’ I exclaimed.
‘It’s nothing to worry about,’ Henry assured me. Turning to the others, he added, ‘He’s the leading partner in the firm. Scotland and Tate, Chartered Surveyors is now Scotland, Tate and Charlton. Walter Scotland retired five years ago, and Jeremy Tate is semi-retired. Dad’s top man. As for Mum, she won a silver medal in April!’
‘For what?’ James asked him. He turned to me. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I shrugged.
‘National Lifesaving Championships, fifty metre manikin carry with fins, in the ladies age fifty to fifty-nine class,’ said Henry proudly.
‘Good for her,’ James said. ‘You didn’t tell me that your Mum’s back in competitive swimming, Annie.’
‘Lifesaving, not proper swimming,’ I said.
‘Not proper swimming!’ my brother protested. ‘Twenty-five metre sprint, dive down three metres, pick up a more-than-forty-kilo manikin from the bottom of the pool, and carry it the rest of the way to the end of the pool! She was brilliant. You really should’ve been there to see her, Anna.’
‘I suppose,’ I agreed reluctantly. On the weekend of the competition, I’d been meeting Simon’s parents for the first (and now certainly last) time.
‘Mum doesn’t have a proper job, but she gives smallpipe lessons at home, and she performs at folk clubs and shows,’ I told James. I had to tell him something, before my brother got the credit for saying that, too. ‘It doesn’t make much money, but it keeps her busy.’
‘And happy,’ Henry added. ‘And that’s the main thing, isn’t it?’ Everyone agreed.
By then we’d finished our lunch. James asked for the bill the moment Corinne arrived to clear the table. Rose asked Al if he was sure he could fit everyone into his car. From his expression, it seemed as if he’d forgotten all about the plan.
While we were discussing how to pay the bill, Al left some cash on the table and nipped off to the loo. We’d paid, and Henry was loudly wondering whether Al had flushed himself “doon the netty”. When Al finally returned, he was very apologetic.
‘You took your time,’ Henry observed. ‘What were you doing in there?’
‘I had to go to London to collect the car,’ Al told him with a smile. ‘Everyone ready?’
‘As euphemisms go, that’s terrible,’ Henry told him. ‘It doesn’t even make sense! What were you really doing? Growing a record-breaking poocumber?’
‘Ew!’ said Rose. Lily and I shook our heads in disdain, but the guys all laughed.
Al’s car, a Land Rover Discovery, was surprisingly roomy; all seven of us fitted inside with ease. Hugo took the seat alongside Al. James and Henry took the two back seats. I climbed in behind Hugo, with Lily in the middle and Rose sitting behind Al.
As we drove north, the conversation finally returned to our love lives. Al, Rose, and Lily all agreed that the biggest mistake James had ever made was ditching his first-ever girlfriend, Rani, for Samantha Lowe. I learned that, unlike Rani–whom both Rose and Lily had liked–the girl they called Lowe by name and low by nature had been very willing, and everyone had seen the photographs. I got a complete list, too: Rani, Samantha, Jilly, Dawn, and Kristen.
I managed to divert Henry from giving James a complete list of my ex-boyfriends by simply squeaking “Sky” every time he tried. The rest of the gang had to make do with Henry and I comparing notes on Simon and Sky. In the end, my brother and I came to the conclusion that there really wasn’t much between my two-timing ex and his. I reached backwards, he took my hand, and we squeezed sympathy at each other.
When the conversation turned to Al’s girlfriend, the girl I would now always think of as “the pulchritudinous Violet L Moon”, Hugo dropped Al in it.
‘He carries her photo in his wallet,’ Hugo told us.
‘Let’s see her,’ Henry demanded.
‘The holiday photos are in the glovebox, Hugo,’ Al said. ‘I collected them this morning. Dig them out, and they can take a look at Flossie, too.’
‘Flossie?’ I asked.
‘You still get prints?’ Henry added in disbelief. ‘Nobody gets prints! My entire life is on my phone.’
Hugo reached into the glovebox, pulled out the packet, and tapped it twice before opening it. Rifling through the images, he pulled one out and passed it over his shoulder to me. ‘We went to St Tropez over the summer,’ he said. ‘And, no, I’m not going to let you see the topless shots, James. An American couple took this one for us. Flossie–my girlfriend–is on the left, Vi’s on the right.’
The smiling round-faced blonde girl on the left was not slim. She wasn’t overweight, but there was a lot of her, something the bikini she wore made obvious. Next to her, Hugo–still stick-thin despite his ridiculous appetite–showed off his freckled torso and skinny legs. He had an arm over Flossie’s shoulder, and he looked happy. Next to him, Al–who was surprisingly well-muscled and very well-tanned–looked happy, too. The girl at his side was as brown as a berry and very pretty. Shoulder-length brown hair framed a heart-shaped face.
‘They both look very nice,’ I said, passing the photograph back to my brother.
‘Huh,’ Lily snorted dismissively. ‘Vi’s still at school. He won’t see her for weeks. Cradle-snatcher!’
‘She’s already eighteen!’ Al protested.
‘She’s only five days younger than Flossie,’ Hugo added. ‘And Flossie left school this summer.’
‘Yeah, Vi is three years younger than me, big deal,’ Al snapped. ‘That’s not much! What is your problem with Vi, sis? It’s not her age, it can’t be! How old is your latest bloke?’
‘James is…’ I began, in an attempt to diffuse the tension. Unfortunately, I couldn’t calculate our age difference quickly enough.
‘James is two-and-a-half years older than you, Annie,’ supplied Rose, when I hesitated. ‘And Andrew Jones is more than three years older than James, so he’s six years older than Lily.’
For a worrying few seconds I thought Lily would explode, but I reached out to her, and she calmed down. ‘Andy is at least twenty years more mature than you lot,’ Lily said, winking at me. ‘Which is a huge change from Craig.’
‘What about Lukas, or Dai?’ Rose asked.
‘I don’t talk about Lukas, and Dai’s forgotten!’ said Lily. ‘Dai! Bloody hell, Rosie, I was just sixteen. We don’t all waste four years of our lives with the useless boy who asked us out when we were sixteen.’ Lily was still angry about something.
‘Scorpius is not useless,’ Al interjected angrily. ‘Rose broke his heart!’
‘Stop the car!’ Rose demanded. ‘I want to get out. I’m not talking about Scorp.’
‘Sorry, Rosie,’ said Lily. She’d calmed down as quickly as she’d exploded. There was an uneasy silence. ‘And I’m sorry about what I said about Violet, too, Al,’ she added quietly. The silence returned. ‘Al!’ The second time she said her brother’s name, it was a demand.
‘I’m sorry too, Rosie. I won’t mention him again.’ Al’s apology was sullen, but it was enough to ease the tension.
Lily leaned in towards me. I put my arm around her shoulder, and she slipped hers behind my back. We hugged.
‘So,’ I said. ‘You probably know more about my latest bloke than I do, what can you tell me?’
‘No, say nothing. I’ll pay whatever you ask, Lils!’ James’ begged, making everyone laugh.
‘None of you have met Andy,’ said Lily. After giving me a final squeeze, she freed herself and opened her shoulder bag. ‘This is him, and his son, Cameron.’
Rose craned her neck to see. And both James and Henry leaned forwards, too. Andy was a good-looking man. He was clean-shaven, his hair was short, and his skin was the rich colour of dark chocolate. The little boy in his arms was definitely mixed race, and his white-toothed smile was even wider than his father’s. When we stopped for a toilet break, at Washington Services, we’d learned a lot about the tragic life of Lily’s new man, an accountant who did work for the hockey team she played for.
Within minutes of leaving the service station, we passed the rusty old Angel. As we headed into the valley and towards the Tyne, I started to sing. I simply couldn’t stop myself. I started with “The Water of Tyne”, and both James and Henry joined in.
The remainder of the journey turned into a request show and, as we headed up the dale, James and I were–at his request–singing “The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh”. I was surprised to discover that he knew the tune, and almost all of the words.
‘All folks believe within the shire
This story to be true,
And they all run to Spindleston,
The cave and trough to view.’
We finished the song as we reached the outskirts of Harbottle, and everyone fell silent. The atmosphere inside the car crackled with tension. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled, and it seemed that every one of us knew that something important was about to happen.
We remained silent when Al pulled the car onto the track up to Drakeshaugh. Hugo got out, opened the gate, and Al drove through. We didn’t speak when he got back in, or when we drove into the gravel yard of the Potter’s old home. It wasn’t until we disembarked that anyone said anything.
‘Who owns this place now?’ Henry asked.
‘Mum and Dad,’ James said. ‘They never sold it. They still visit, occasionally.’
‘But they don’t call in on my Mum and Dad,’ Henry said sadly.
James shook his head.
‘Look at us,’ I observed. Rose’s skirt was ankle length, Hugo wore a suit and his shoes were built for fashion, not practicality. And Lily…
‘It’s more than a mile to the stone, Lily.’ I stared at her feet as I spoke. ‘It won’t be easy in those heels.’
‘Or in those pointy-toed things, Hugo,’ Henry added.
‘True,’ Lily admitted.
Hugo muttered something under his breath, opened the back of the car, and pulled out two pairs of rather tatty old trainers. ‘Problem solved,’ he told us.
As he and Lily changed shoes, I turned my attention to Rose. ‘Will you be okay in that skirt?’ I asked.
‘Fine,’ she told me, although she didn’t sound certain. ‘Let’s go.’
Abandoning the car at Drakeshaugh, we set off up the track. The walk was shorter than I remembered, and in little more than fifteen minutes we were climbing the rock-strewn rise towards the stone. James and I were hand in hand, the others in a close-grouped clump behind us. None of us had spoken a word on the journey, and the pressure I felt was becoming physical. As we closed on the stone, I yawned and grimaced in a desperate attempt to make my ears pop. Noticing that James had a finger in his ear, I turned to see how everyone else was faring. They were all gurning or shaking their heads.
Reaching the stone, I stroked it’s rough, vertical surface and immediately felt better. James leant against the angular corner of the stone, smiled at me, and began examining its base. I joined in the search.
‘That’s it. Lils!’ James indicated a narrow gap below the stone, right where Lily stood.
Lily needed no further instructions. Kneeling down, she thrust her arm into the narrow gap. Heedless of the fact that her obviously expensive boots and leather jacket was getting scuffed and muddy, she reached, elbow deep, into the hole. ‘Got it,’ she announced happily, pulling out the Tupperware box.
She was about to open it, but James stopped her. ‘Up top,’ he ordered, pointing to the top of the stone.
James led us around to the other side of the stone, to the sloping and slightly creviced side we’d always climbed up. Hugo went first, scrambling up the stone, heedless of the damage he was doing to his smart trousers. Lily was next, and I followed. Rose pulled the hem of the back of her skirt up between her legs and tucked it into her waistband, turning it into a sort of sampot. Soon, we were all on top of the stone. We stood in silence for a moment, simply admiring the view. We were home.
‘Ready?’ James asked.
‘Ready,’ we all told him. We sat in a circle atop our perch, watching Lily open the box. There was no hiss or spark when she pulled off the lid; it wasn’t a treasure chest, simply a small Tupperware box. The seal was good, and the rules remained dry. Lily carefully lifted them out and handed the grubby and yellowing sheet of paper to James, he carefully unfolded it. That was when we all felt the magic.
‘The rules,’ James began. ‘One, the name of the club is the Drakestone Seven.’ He emphasised both words. ‘Two, the club is for having fun and adventures.’ He passed the paper to Henry.
‘Three, the club is private, and every member swears in blood to keep it secret,’ said Henry, before passing the paper to Rose.
‘Four, and the club is for learning stuff, too,’ Rose reminded us.
‘Five, and for exploring and keeping people safe,’ Al began to speak the words he’d dictated to Rose all those years ago even before he’d taken the paper from her. He barely glanced at it, simply handing it on to me. We’d passed the tipping point, and whatever enchantment we’d been under was broken.
‘Six, and there’s a club song that we all have to sing, Magpie.’ As I spoke the rule I’d insisted upon, I recalled how hard Henry, Al, and Rose had tried to persuade me to make a different rule, and how stubborn I’d been, even then. I could hear my argument in my head. “There’s seven of us, and it’s a secret club, and seven’s for a secret never told, and I’m seven, and I like singing!”
I gave the paper to Lily. She didn’t need it.
‘Seven, and every member promises to be kind to animals.’ As she handed the paper to Hugo, I remembered the long discussion we’d had at that point. Hugo had been unable to think of another rule to add. Henry made a suggestion; Hugo could simply take the main rule, the one we’d all agreed on before Rose had started writing.
‘Eight,’ he told us seriously. ‘And every member of the Drakestone Seven signed below swears to keep the rules and to be true to each other whatever happens, forever.’
‘At least we’ve already sung the song,’ said Al in relief. I stuck my tongue out at him, and Lily giggled.
Rose examined the paper, we’d all signed it, and our bloody thumbprints were next to our names. ‘We made a blood oath,’ she said quietly.
‘Does that mean what I think it means?’ asked Lily fearfully.
‘It’s an unbreakable vow,’ said Hugo.
‘Oh, shit!’ said James.
I had no idea why they were so worried, but I was certain of one thing. ‘We need to sing the song again,’ I said. ‘All together, like we used to.’
Back to index
Chapter 13: Common Piece: Potters AlarmedCommon Piece: Potters Alarmed
Ginny stepped back to admire her handiwork. To the untrained eye it appeared to be an empty, though thoroughly weeded, flower bed. An experienced gardener would notice that the narrow rectangle of fine black soil under the living room window was not simply weed-free, it was filled with bulbs. Satisfied that her work would result in a good display of tulips, daffodils, and allium in the spring, she turned to cast a critical eye over the front door.
The final task Ginny had set herself was to tidy up the straggling, snail-infested clematis that was half-heartedly clambering up the trellis to the right of the door of their new home. Picking up her secateurs and preparing to fight the unruly tangle of stems, she gazed up at her new home and her mind drifted.
The house, Common Piece, Sutton under Hill, Derbyshire, was ideal. It was remote, and the long narrow track, Commonpiece Lane, was the only approach to the property. The red brick box whose front garden she was busily knocking into shape was, she knew, perfect for them. She had dealt with an overgrown garden before, and by the spring the rear garden would be free of the dandelions, burdock, and nettles that currently infested it. She would again have a vegetable garden. Four bedrooms were enough for the kids, in the unlikely event that they ever all turned up together.
The house and its grounds were much smaller than Drakeshaugh. That was a good thing; the children were no longer children, and grandchildren were a long-distant prospect. The Potter chicks had flown the nest and were making their own way in the world, some more successfully than others. Pushing aside worries about her eldest, Ginny assured herself that moving out of Grimmauld Place for the second time had been a sensible decision.
Harry’s reluctance to sell any of the houses in which they’d lived, loved, and raised their children meant that they already owned three properties. If their calculations were correct, this fourth would be theirs a few years before Harry retired. They were comfortable–they were more than comfortable–although rather more of their wealth than necessary was tied up in property. By buying, but not selling, they had become small-scale property tycoons by default. If they sold their other homes, they’d be rich. But Harry wouldn’t sell any of them, not even Drakeshaugh. Places, or the memories of them, were important to Harry.
Don’t blame Harry, Ginny reminded herself. It had been a joint decision, like every decision they made. Had she felt strongly about it, she’d have fought it. The hopeless prospect that they’d one day return to Drakeshaugh would not die; it was a barely-burning ember neither she nor her husband could extinguish.
A cloud passed over the sun. Under its cooling shadow, Ginny was brought back to her newest garden, and was reminded that it was early autumn, not late summer. There was a lot to do before the onset of winter, and she was supposed to be working on the clematis, not drowning in a pool of bittersweet memories. Striding over to the door, she sternly reminded herself of the target she’d set. She would have the work completed before her husband arrived home. The alarm had doubly delayed her. First by simply sounding, and second by stirring up distracting memories.
Ginny didn’t quite achieve her goal. She was still clipping and tying the clematis when a bright blue glow in the lane behind her signalled the arrival of Harry’s car. He was a little earlier than usual, but it was Friday, and he tried to finish early on a Friday. Putting down the secateurs and pulling off her gardening gloves, Ginny stood and turned towards the narrow lane that ended at the gate. Strolling over the flagstones, which were scattered across the lawn like stepping stones, she reached the low wooden gate at the same moment as her husband. After they’d exchanged hellos, he leant over the gate, and they kissed.
‘Good day at the office?’ Ginny asked cheerfully.
‘Could’ve been worse,’ Harry told his wife.
‘But not much, by your expression,’ she observed.
‘Politics!’ his shrug was the only explanation she needed. ‘What is it that you want to tell me?’
‘What makes you think I have something to tell you?’ she asked.
‘More than twenty-four years of marriage,’ he reminded her, his eyes twinkling.
Lifting the latch, Ginny pulled open the gate. Harry entered the garden, looked up at the red brick dwelling, and examined the lawn and flower beds.
‘Garden’s looking a lot tidier,’ he observed. ‘You’ve been very busy. I expect you’ve already finished the back garden.’
‘You cheeky sod! It’s not even started, as you well know.’ As she spoke, he put his hands on her waist and looked into her face.
‘What’s happened?’ he asked.
‘Alarm went off today,’ she said vaguely, deliberately not telling him where.
‘Alarm! You’ve had an intruder?’ he asked. ‘Here? Impossible! Who? How did they find you? Why didn’t you call me?’
‘I didn’t want to bother you,’ she said. ‘And, besides, it took me a while to figure out which alarm it was.’
‘Not here, then?’ asked Harry, relieved. As his wife shook her head, her silver-tinted, red hair shimmered in the early evening light.
‘It must have been Beaumaris,’ he concluded. ‘Lily–or one of the other Harpies–did something they shouldn’t have at Five West Terrace.’
Again, Ginny shook her head.
‘Craig didn’t try to get in, did he?’ Harry glowered.
‘After what happened when Lily dumped him? He wouldn’t dare,’ Ginny told her husband.
‘We should have…’
‘No, we should not!’ Ginny told him firmly. ‘I told you she’d eventually realise what a selfish young man he was, so long as we didn’t try to tell her. Nothing brings out Lily’s stubborn streak faster than her interfering parents, you know that! If we’d said anything to her, she’d probably still be with him.’
‘I suppose…’ agreed Harry thoughtfully; he gave his wife a hopeful smile. ‘She’s okay now, isn’t she? It was great to see her so happy at your Mum’s last Sunday. I can’t remember the last time I saw her in such a good mood.’
‘You said that at the time, and it got me thinking. I’ve been asking around. There’s a rumour going around the Harpies that Lily’s got a new man,’ Ginny confided. ‘It appears that they’ve been together for a while, but they’ve been so discreet that the papers haven’t found out yet.’
‘Lily? Discreet? What’s his name?’ Harry asked.
‘I don’t know, not yet,’ Ginny told him. ‘But now I know he exists, I’ll find out soon enough.’ She folded her arms. ‘I want you to promise that you won’t run a full background and security check on him when I do.’
‘Promise!’ Ginny demanded.
Hanging his head, Harry mumbled his reluctant acquiescence. ‘So, what happened in Beaumaris had nothing to do with this new man of hers?’
‘I told you, the alarm wasn’t at number five, Harry.’
‘Grimmauld Place? It should have been empty. Hugo and Al were on early shift. When they left the office at noon, Al told me that they weren’t going home; they were heading straight up to Sheffield to see how Rose and James are getting on,’ said Harry.
‘That’s what they told you?’ Ginny asked. ‘Interesting. They didn’t mention meeting anyone else?’
‘No, but what’s that got to do with the Grimmauld Place alarm?’
‘It wasn’t the Grimmauld Place alarm, either, Harry.’
‘Not here, or…’ It took him a moment to catch up. ‘Who’s been to Drakeshaugh?’ he asked.
‘The kids,’ Ginny told him.
‘I wonder why?’ Harry’s question was addressed more to himself than his wife. ‘Why would they go to Drakeshaugh, and why wouldn’t they tell me?’ As he looked into Ginny’s eyes, he somehow knew there was more. ‘You said “the kids”. I assumed that you meant Al, Hugo, Rose, and James. Was Lily with them?’
‘Not just Lily,’ she told him. ‘When I said “the kids”, I meant it.’
‘Violet’s at school, and Flossie’s in training; she was still in the Auror Office training room when I left…’ The truth finally dawned on Harry; his mouth became an astonished O. ‘The kids! You don’t mean “the kids and their girlfriends”, you’re talking about “The Gang”, aren’t you?’
‘All seven of them,’ Ginny confirmed. ‘When I finally found the Drakeshaugh Map at the back of the bottom drawer of my desk, they were already heading toward the gate. Henry, James, and Annie were in the lead. I think they were probably going to walk up to the Drakestone.’
‘I’m still not certain that we can trust James around Muggles,’ said Harry worriedly. ‘I don’t want to have to arrest him again, Ginny. He’s only two years into a four-year ban. Perhaps I should go and speak to him.’
‘We are not going to interfere, Harry,’ Ginny told him firmly. ‘He’s an adult; one week from today we’ll be celebrating his twenty-third birthday. Besides, you know that interfering won’t work! I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t told you about the alarm. We have no idea what they’re doing, and we don’t need to know.’
‘James can be headstrong, and he’s made some big mistakes in the past,’ Ginny assured her husband. ‘But that’s all behind him now, and besides, he’s with Al, Hugo, and Rosie; those are three very sensible kids. So’s Annie, remember? We should simply be thankful that they’re together.’
‘Yes, but James and Henry!’ Harry reminded her, ‘And Lily and Annie, when they get together…’ His face creased into a nostalgic smile. ‘The most devilish of little angels. I wonder how, and where, James and Henry met up again?’
‘We’ll find out when they tell us,’ said Ginny firmly.
Their evening meal over, the Potters were sitting on the sofa and listening to the news. Ginny was leaning forwards, purring contentedly, and Harry was gently scratching her back. When the alarm sounded, Harry slid his arm from under his wife’s top. Leaving her to refasten her bra, he dashed through into the study. When she arrived, moments later, he was already poring over the map.
‘James is standing very close to Annie,’ said Harry worriedly. ‘They’re so close that their names are overlapping. Perhaps she’s hurt, perhaps he’s carrying her!’
‘Perhaps they’re snogging,’ Ginny suggested, her cheeks dimpling in mirth.
Harry dismissed that suggestion with a dismissive eye roll. ‘The others seem to be just milling around in the yard. No, they’re all moving close to each other, and they’re getting closer.’
‘We’re spying on our kids, Harry,’ Ginny reminded him. ‘We promised ourselves that we wouldn’t spy on them. That’s why the maps are in the drawer. They have to make their own mistakes, and we have to be there to help pick them up when they do.’
‘I was right about Craig, wasn’t I? And about Amelia.’
‘True, but you were wrong about Kristen.’
‘I didn’t realise she was using a love potion,’ Ginny admitted. ‘But neither did you, Harry, and we’re both usually pretty good at spotting them. There must have been a little spark of something between James and Kristen, at least for a while. If there hadn’t been, we’d have noticed. I was talking to Lavender about it this morning. She thinks that Kirsten must’ve started using the potion when she realised James was falling out of love with her.’
‘Lavender? Why were you discussing James with Lavender?’
‘I wasn’t–not at first, anyway. She turned up here at about eleven o’clock. Unannounced, as usual; you know what she’s like! Her excuse was that she “really needed to discuss Albus and Violet’s relationship.” But an excuse is all it was. What she really wanted was to have a good nosey around our new house.’ As she quoted Lavender, Ginny used the slow and sultry whisper Vi’s mother always affected. ‘Apart from the fact that her “darling Violet” had spent the night before she went back to Hogwarts at Grimmauld Place with Al–which we knew–she didn’t actually have anything to discuss. The conversation sort of drifted.’
Harry was nodding, while still staring at the Map. ‘They’re very close together, and they’ve stopped moving. Now–oh I should’ve realised–they must all be sitting in one of the cars.’
‘See, they got together for some reason, and went to visit their old haunt,’ said Ginny. ‘Nothing to worry about.’
‘How did they meet, and why go to Drakeshaugh?’ Harry asked.
‘It’s our kids and their friends, not a case for the Auror Office!’ Ginny reminded him forcefully. ‘Perhaps they were reminiscing, James decided to contact Henry, and they decided to meet at the stone. They were always wandering off up there when they were younger.’
‘Possibly, but after … after the last incident… after we called in that Obliviator to alter the Charlton’s memories, James hardly ever spoke about Henry again. It was almost as if James had been Obliviated, too, or at least had his memories altered.’
‘After the lecture you gave James and the others about all the problems their friendship was causing, I’m not surprised he stopped talking about Henry. Until we called in the professionals, you were Obliviating his best friend at least once a year.’ Ginny looked into Harry’s face and saw the return of a guilt she hadn’t seen in many years. ‘It’s not your fault, Harry. It had to be done!’ she assured him.
‘True,’ although he agreed, Harry didn’t sound happy about it. ‘But… I’ve just realised… that Obliviator… the last one we used; it wasn’t just any Obliviator, it was Raymond Patterson, Craig’s father.’
‘Was it?’ Ginny’s hackles rose. Numerous suspicions and concerns fuelled the wild and paranoid thoughts burning in her mind. She opened her mouth, saw Harry’s concerns, and reconsidered her response. ‘Does that matter?’ she asked thoughtfully, trying to remain rational. ‘Seven years ago, Lily was only twelve, Raymond Patterson was just another Obliviator and, after a fourth year where they weren’t talking–just like you and Ron–James and Craig were finally back to being friends. That was long before Hermione became Minister. And Craig and Lily didn’t get together until last year, at…’
‘At about the same time Raymond Patterson decided to enter politics,’ Harry observed.
‘True, but he can’t possibly have been trying to set up some master plan all those years ago. And, like I said, at the time James and Craig were friends. In those days, we used to call him Henry the second, remember?’ Ginny paused.
‘But now Patterson is trying to persuade everyone that he’d make a better Minister than Hermione,’ Harry grumbled.
‘You don’t like the “Muggle-borns have too much power” platform he’s using to drum up support,’ said Ginny forcefully. ‘Neither do I, it’s an appeal to nostalgia for a “better time” that never really existed. But seven years ago, Patterson was simply a Ministry professional doing his job. And you have to admit that he did it well. After he dealt with them, Henry and Annie Charlton never regained their memories, unlike all the times you or I Obliviated them.’
‘True,’ Harry admitted. ‘Sometimes, you know, I wonder if James is right about the statute. I always hated having to alter the Chartons’ memories.’
‘So did I.’ Ginny gave her husband a consoling hug before continuing. ‘We weren’t very good at it, either, were we?’
‘Intent!’ Harry nodded, guilt creased his features. ‘We never had it, and that’s why it took Patterson so long to sort it out.’
‘Magic always boils down to intent,’ Ginny agreed, reaching up to caress his cheek. ‘Your heart was never in the Memory Charms you cast on them.’ She looked into her husband’s bright green eyes. ‘Deep down, in here…’ she placed a hand on his steadily-beating heart ‘…you didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise our kids … no, not just the kids … our precious friendship. You didn’t want the Charltons to forget. Neither did I! It’s a good thing that we couldn’t–can’t–bring ourselves to constantly Obliviate other people’s kids. Remember the damage that was done to the Hume boys all those years ago?’
‘Patterson had no problems with altering the Charlton’s memories, parents and kids,’ said Harry grimly. ‘That’s another reason to hope that Hermione wins, and stays on as Minister.’
Pulling her Mirrorphone from her pocket, Ginny looked down into the screen. ‘Something wrong, Harry?’
‘What time did the kids leave Drakeshaugh on Friday night?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know, I didn’t look at the clock.’
‘Neither did I, but…’ He waited. Realising that he wanted independent confirmation, she thought back to the events of that evening.
‘It was dusk,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t completely dark, and we were listening to the news on the Wizarding Wireless Network. The main part of the bulletin had finished, and that idiotic Quidditch “expert” of theirs–Larry MacNamara–was making his usual ridiculous guesses about the likely off-season player transfers. That means it must have been near the end of the broadcast. At a guess, between quarter to and five to seven.’
‘That’s what I think, too,’ Harry said. He was looking worried.
‘Why do you want to know, Harry?’
‘I checked with the Portkey Office. Al activated his car’s Portkey at eighteen fifty-two. Henry and Annie must’ve been in the car when he did it.’
‘You can’t be certain about that, Harry. Perhaps he dropped them off at the bottom of the track,’ Ginny suggested. ‘And we saw them leave. They were all in the car, all seven of them. We have to trust them.’
‘There’s a chance that an Auror and a trainee Auror, together with two other witches and a wizard, have broken the Statute of Secrecy,’ said Harry gloomily. ‘I can’t ignore that!’
‘Damn it, Harry,’ said Ginny angrily. ‘I told you to not to snoop! Why in Merlin’s name did you contact the Portkey Office? We were better off not knowing! Rose and Hugo were with them; if the Minister’s kids broke the Statute, and the press find out, it will cripple Hermione’s re-election campaign!’
‘I know,’ Harry admitted.
‘We’re the only ones who know who was in the car,’ observed Ginny. ‘Is there any way for the Portkey office to find out?’
‘I don’t think so,’ Harry admitted. ‘But why didn’t Al or Hugo say anything to us at The Burrow, yesterday?’
‘I don’t know, Harry, and neither do you, but it doesn’t matter!’ Ginny snapped. ‘They’ll tell us when they’re ready. Just drop it. Stop investigating, before you do any more damage, okay?’ With that, she broke the connection.
Back to index
Chapter 14: Mysterious StrangerMysterious Stranger
Unlike Lily and Rosie, Al made no attempt to sing. He whispered the words. Despite the fact that we’d have sounded a lot better had Lily and Rosie done the same, Al’s actions annoyed me. Hen, James, and I carried the tune, because the normally reliable Hugo was struggling with his breaking voice.
‘Seven’s for a secret, never told.’ We finished.
Hugo carefully folded up the rules and handed them to Lily. She placed them in the Tupperware box, sealed it, and placed it centrally on the rock in front of us all. In the silence after the song, everyone looked uneasy. We could feel the tension of a brewing storm. Unless someone managed to divert it, the argument that had been rumbling in the background for almost a week was about to occur. It had been held in abeyance first by the constant presence of its subject, Al’s friend, then by the absence of Henry and me. Over the Easter weekend, we’d been dragged away to see our family.
It was the day after my birthday. Henry and I had cycled down to Drakeshaugh. We’d left our bikes at the Potters’ and then all seven of us walked up to the Drakestone. As we walked, we managed to keep the conversation civil by talking about my birthday. Restricting the conversation to mundane matters made things easier, and “Annie’s Birthday” was something that had been treated very seriously ever since the events of my eleventh. We sat in our circle, cross-legged on the stone, and silence fell.
The rules were read, the song was sung, and the tensions rose. We’d made our decision without a proper meeting, and Al wasn’t happy. I stared across the circle at my brother and James.
‘First meeting of the Easter holidays,’ I said, hoping that continuing the small talk might prevent conflict. ‘And they’re almost over. Now we’re here, what’re we gonna do today?’
James shrugged, and I knew I’d failed.
‘We could walk up to the crags,’ Hugo suggested. He, like me, was trying to keep things calm, but we’d been to the top of Harbottle Crags so many times I’d lost count.
‘Yeah, we’ve got nothing better to do; let’s not talk about new members, let’s just go for a walk.’ Al’s acid sarcasm splashed across all of us. ‘Why am I here? This club is rubbish!’
‘It’s not!’ I protested, astonished by his words.
Al was usually the club’s staunchest defender, but we all knew why he was angry. While I was trying to figure out how to deal with his hurt, how to treat the obviously festering wound we’d inflicted, James poked it.
‘You’re only saying that because last week we told you Malfoy couldn’t join.’
Al bristled and, as the Potter brothers prepared for the argument they both wanted, Rosie prepared to share her views on Malfoy. Henry caught my eye, and indicated that I should try to deal with Al.
My brawny big brother wasn’t the tallest of us–Rosie still held that title–but Hen had outgrown James, and there was no doubt he was the club’s physical heavyweight. Henry nudged James firmly in the ribs and raised his hand for silence. James and Rosie hesitated. Al drew breath and prepared to ignite the argument. I put a hand on his shoulder and whispered, ‘Let Hen speak. Please, Al.’
‘Huh!’ He tensed, but other than an exhalation expressing his annoyance, he said nothing.
‘We agreed all those years ago that we’re seven.’ Henry’s voice was quiet and conciliatory. Leaning forward, he gently placed his hand on the Tupperware box. ‘Rule one — The name of the club is the Drakestone Seven.’ Pausing, he looked around at us all, emphasising the point he was making. ‘That’s why we always, automatically, say no to new members. We’re the seven; we can’t have new members. I know that, deep inside, you all do, as well!’ From the way he scratched his head, I knew that he was a little embarrassed, and that could mean only one thing, feelings.
‘This is probably going to sound soppy, or daft, or both, but it’s no soppier or dafter than the rules–especially Annie’s rule. Fancy making us sing!’ He winked cheerfully at me as he spoke. We both knew how much Rosie and Lily hated the song, and I knew that he was teasing them as much as he was teasing me. Looking a little embarrassed, he continued. ‘Not all of us want to sing, but it’s Rule Six, so we do. This…’ he turned and looked pointedly at James. ‘This “silly little kids” club is important to me. Whenever we meet, despite the stupid arguments we sometimes have, I feel… I feel comfor… comple… compleforted!’
‘That’s not a word,’ said James cheerfully as Hen’s sense of togetherness washed over us. ‘But it probably should be, Hen, my dauntless accomplice.’ He was smiling, and so were most of the others. Even Al, who was doing his best to remain moody, was finding it hard to maintain his frown. In an attempt to further lighten the mood, Hen responded with more word-mangling.
‘I thank you, staunch companion, for not removing the pistachio because of my disturbulated vocabularisation,’ Henry told him seriously. It worked–Al finally broke into a smile.
‘I feel it, too. Right here.’ James clenched his fist and used it to tap himself over the heart. The action, and the seriousness of his words, were enough to prevent anyone teasing him. ‘I know we were only little when we wrote the rules.’ He glanced over at our youngest members. ‘Lily and Hugo are older than Henry and I were when we all started this club, and they could probably come up with better rules. But we’re the Drakestone Seven, and no matter how silly they are, the rules matter. I’m not being stupid, am I?’
The fact that not one of us, not even Al, provided a sarcastic answer to the gift of a question James had asked showed how the magic of the place was working. My heart was in agreement. My head was nodding vigorously.
‘Hell, yeah,’ I said as, around me, the others vocalised their agreement.
‘It’s not James, or Rosie, or any of us saying no, Al,’ Henry continued. ‘It’s the rules. You know that!’
‘This is our secret,’ James added. ‘We agreed to that at the very beginning. The parents know we’re in a secret club, but they don’t know about the Seven, and they don’t know about the rules.’
‘Because they’re a secret,’ added Hugo portentously.
‘A bit of a silly secret,’ Al’s final attempt at protest was half-hearted.
‘Dun’t matter, Al,’ I said. ‘And it’s not like Scorpius Malfoy…’ I paused, incredulous, as those ridiculous syllables left my mouth. ‘Is that really his name?’
‘Yeah,’ The others all confirmed it.
‘Poor sod!’ Henry shook his head. ‘And yet you lot don’t seem to think that it’s weird.’
‘Albus Severus,’ Al reminded us. He was smiling.
‘Yeah,’ Henry admitted. ‘But it’s Potter, not…’
‘Pomegranate,’ I suggested. ‘And Al Potter sounds perfectly normal. How do you abbreviate Scorpius–Score?’
Al’s face fell, and I realised that making fun of Al’s best friend’s name was a bad move.
‘Sorry,’ I said.
‘Okay.’ With one word, Al accepted my apology.
Henry turned and stared pointedly at James. ‘It’s not like Scorpius is the first person we’ve said no to, is it?’
‘Yeah. Teddy was way too old, wasn’t he, James?’ Al reminded his brother. For a moment, I wasn’t certain whether he was holding out an olive branch or jabbing a stick into a very old wound.
‘Yes, he was.’ James took his brother’s comment as a peace offering. ‘And after that crack he made about the club being for “silly little kids”, it’s obvious that he was never good enough to join such an elite group.’
‘Right,’ I said. ‘We’re seven. No new members, never, ever.’ Nods of agreement rippled around the circle. Peace was made and agreement reached.
As I looked at my friends, I tried to remember what we’d looked like when we’d sat there for our first meeting. We always sat in the same positions. We ordered ourselves clockwise by age: James, Henry, Rosie, Al, Me, Lily, and Hugo. As a consequence, I was always facing James and Henry.
Thinking back to the day we’d signed “the covenant” was oddly disconcerting. When we were together, it seemed like we’d always been “the seven”. The signing was ancient, almost legendary, but my memory of it was so clear that it seemed like it was only yesterday
We’d signed the covenant after Lily’s second real birthday, and her third wasn’t even two months behind us. We’d been the seven for more than four years. Why was the club so important to us? It was a kid’s club, and we were growing up. I was grown up! I was a teenager. Admittedly it was only by one day, but I was. In just over a year, Lily and Hugo–the little ones–would be teens, too.
A sudden gust of wind blew Rosie’s untidy mop of ginger hair into an even worse tangle than usual, and the Tupperware box skittered across the uneven surface of the Drakestone. As the box bounced and rattled towards a rain-filled low spot, we all reached for it. Seven hands stopped it in its tracks, and we found ourselves physically connected.
‘If you can’t make an unassisted ascent of the Great Drake Stone, you can’t join,’ said James seriously. Beside him, my brother nodded. It was a little cruel of Henry to agree to that rule, because they were addressing the only one of us who had failed to make the climb. Everyone looked expectantly at Hugo, and Henry stepped back to join me.
He set his jaw and nodded. At seven, he was the youngest. He was also the neatest and cleanest. His orange-brown parka looked brand new, he wore dark brown trousers rather than jeans, and his scuff-free brown leather shoes were highly polished.
Hugo climbed onto “the starter rock”, the long stone slab that led to the best footholds on the smooth stone face, and looked across at us. We nodded, and he set off. There were a couple of slips, but nothing serious, and then he was there, standing on the not-quite flat top of the Drakestone.
‘You’ll be fine, Lily,’ James said as his sister prepared to follow.
‘I know that, thilly,’ she lisped scornfully. Lily was missing all four of her bottom front teeth, and two from the top. I was a little jealous of her, as I’d only lost bottom teeth. One of my top ones was loose, I pushed at it with my tongue.
Stuffing her bright red mittens into the front pocket of the muddy, lime-green denim dungarees she was wearing, Lily prepared herself for the climb. Although they didn’t look it, the dungarees were almost new. They had been a birthday present from her Aunt Luna. Her birthday party had been huge, with lots of relatives, fireworks, and everything. That was because it was only her second “real” birthday. I knew that I’d been there for her first “real” party–her fourth birthday–but I could barely remember it.
We were in that brief, six-week period where we were the same age, something that always seemed important to her. She was “Little Lily-loo” and she would probably always be the smallest of us. Perhaps that was why she always seemed to try harder; there was no doubt that the rapidity with which she scampered rapidly up the rocks was a challenge to the rest of us.
I was next. Poking my tongue through the gap in my bottom teeth, I removed my panda mittens in preparation for the climb. I was wearing my panda-eared beanie, my first ever Barbour jacket, and stout walking shoes. After checking my route, I turned to my brother. He gave me two thumbs up, winked, and shouted, ‘Go, Annie.’ I went, and was at the top before I had time to think about it.
Al was next, then Rosie, Henry, and finally, James. I wasn’t watching them; I was staring down at Drakeshaugh Wood. I’d seen a flash of black and white in the trees. I’m not really superstitious, but if I see a magpie, the act of seeking out others seems to be ingrained in me. I blame mum, because she taught me the song. One’s for sorrow, and I didn’t want sorrow.
Fortunately, when the lonely bird broke free from the trees, others followed. I counted seven. By then we were all atop the stone, and we sat in our circle for the first time. As the discussions about the club we were about to form–and its rules–began, I was already singing the song to myself.
When it came to my turn to suggest a rule, my decision was made. I’d seen seven magpies, there were seven of us, and seven’s for a secret. Added to all that, the song says that the magpie is more cunning than the raven, and more wise than any owl. My logic was impeccable, but not everyone agreed. Fortunately, a combination of my own stubbornness and total support from Henry, James, and Lily was enough to persuade the others.
We were equals; there was no captain or leader. There was only one role. Rosie was our secretary; she’d brought a notepad and a pen, and she was by far the neatest writer. She wasn’t the only one who’d thought ahead. Henry had “borrowed” a small Tupperware box from Mum’s cupboard, because we’d be burying the rules once we’d signed them. He’d also “borrowed” a pin from Mum’s sewing box. He wanted us to sign our names in blood.
The others weren’t certain about that. After Henry had stubbornly pricked his own thumb, and tried to write with the pin, he was forced to admit that writing his name in blood wasn’t as easy as it appeared in books. James suggested a thumbprint instead, so that’s what we did. As the pin was passed from one to the next, not one of us thought of cleaning it, not that we had anything to clean it with. Once James and Henry had made their faint mark on rules, Lily insisted that she be next. After that, no one was going to refuse, although Hugo had problems, and in the end Rosie had to pierce her brother’s thumb for him.
Once the deed was done, and the rules folded up and placed in the Tupperware box, I looked around at the other members of the Drakestone Seven. We were a secret club. I was a member of a secret club! It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. Henry, his shaggy blond hair mostly hidden under the NUFC beanie he wore, caught my eye and grinned in triumph. His anxieties had vanished with the formation of the club.
James and Henry had both been eleven when we’d signed. As I recalled those events, I knew why the club existed, and why Henry had been anxious. I’d been through the same thing when the time for Lily to go off to big school approached. Our membership of the club had lessened my worries. The club had been Henry’s idea, James had been very keen, and together they had persuaded the rest of us–not that we had taken much persuading.
Henry–and James, I was now convinced, had been worried. They were eleven, and it was Easter. They had one more term together, and then James would be off to the school his parents had attended. He was going to Scotland, to a boarding school. The club was more than a club; it was a promise that they–that we–would stay connected no matter what.
I was certain that, somewhere deep inside myself, I’d understood that when I’d signed. The grin Lily and I had exchanged as I added my thumbprint to the rules, the hug I’d given Hugo; they were acknowledgements that we knew what we were doing. We would not be separated from our friends simply because they were going to a different school.
When we’d signed, James had been rather skinny. Now, although he wasn’t as big as Henry, he was a broad-shouldered and athletic fifteen-year-old. The sun shone on his face and they made the ginger tints in his hair glint like fire. There were a few hints of gingery down on his face, too. My brother was already shaving regularly, but James had yet to reach that stage. I continued my examination of his even features, and wondered if he had a girlfriend. It wasn’t until Hen spoke that I realised I was staring rather too intently at my brother’s best friend.
‘So, we’re good about Scorpius not joining,’ Henry concluded, wanting to make certain that the argument was closed.
‘Fine,’ Al agreed.
‘Great, so, what did you learn at Hogwarts this year, Jamie?’ Henry asked.
Rosie made her usual half-hearted protest. ‘We really shouldn’t tell you,’ she reminded us. ‘It’s illegal! We could get into a lot of trouble.’
‘Our thumbprints are on the rules, in our own blood, and we signed our names too, Rosie,’ I reminded her. ‘We can keep a secret, can’t we Hen?’
‘We always have!’ My brother nodded.
‘I…’ James hesitated. Rather than reply to my brother, he stared into my face, and gave me a worried look. ‘Me and Craig are friends again, is that okay?’
‘No!’ Henry, so reasonable up to that point, flipped from conciliator to attacker with a loudly exclaimed objection. ‘You arse, Jamie! He’s already made a fool of you twice, and now you’ve forgiven him for the second time!’
At Henry’s protest, James lifted his hand up to his left eye. I was certain he was remembering the first “Craig” incident. At that time, on my eleventh birthday, Henry had thumped James in the eye as hard as he could. It was the only time they’d ever come to blows and I had never, before or since, seen my brother so angry. Memories of the day after my birthday flashed through my head. Exactly two years ago, today…
’You okay, Annie?’ asked Henry awkwardly when I opened my bedroom door. It seemed he’d been waiting in his own bedroom until I emerged from my sanctuary.
‘No,’ I admitted. I was in my pink, sleeveless, Elsa nightdress. I lifted one red and blotchy leg, and held out my similarly disfigured arms for him to see. ‘I expect my face is the same!’
I watched him carefully, but there was no teasing over my appearance. I eventually decided that the odd expression on his face was one of sympathy, and it seemed to me that he was struggling to express it. He nodded sorrowfully, moved forwards, and hugged me. His powerful embrace was comforting, so I threw my arms around him and hugged him back. We were still holding each other when his curiosity came to the fore.
‘Did you rub it on everywhere?’ he asked, releasing me and looking down at my legs.
‘Just my arms and face,’ I told him. ‘It smelt really nice,’ I added by way of justification. ‘But the rash has spread everywhere.’
‘Does it hurt?’ he asked.
‘Not now,’ I admitted. ‘The boils were really painful, but that ointment Uncle Harry gave to Mum sorted them out straight away.’
‘Like magic,’ Henry observed.
‘Like magic,’ I repeated the words thoughtfully, knowing that the memory I was searching for would return.
‘We’ll remember. We always do,’ Henry assured me. He hugged me again. ‘I’m glad you’re okay, sis,’ he said with quiet affection.
‘Thanks,’ I muttered. Brought close to tears by Hen’s unexpected compassion, I shrugged myself free from his arms. Releasing me, he took a hasty step back. For a second, I thought he was going to apologise for the hug, but I soon realised he was waiting for me to be rude to him. I decided not to disappoint him.
‘Your friend James is an arse!’ I said.
‘He’s not my…’ Hen began strongly, but despite everything he was unable to force out the final word. Despite everything, disavowing his friendship with James was a step too far. He tried another way. ‘I thumped him, you know,’ he admitted.
‘When?’ I asked.
‘When the boils came up, when you started screaming,’ he said. ‘James started to laugh when your skin went red. Then the boils arrived, and he looked shocked, terrified, even. I clocked him one in the eye, really hard. Dad didn’t tell me off. Neither did Uncle Harry!’
‘Good!’ I said vindictively.
‘But…’ Henry shuffled nervously.
‘But what?’ I asked.
‘I hit him, Annie,’ Henry said. ‘I hit Jamie. I’ve never actually hit anyone before, not a proper hit, anyways.’
‘He deserved it,’ I assured Henry, holding up my arms to remind my brother why.
‘Yeah, but he just took it, Annie. He just stood there, staring at you,’ Henry admitted. I could see the tears forming in my brother’s eyes as he made his confession. ‘I wanted to hit him again, to keep hitting him, but I couldn’t. He was just waiting for me to do it; he didn’t even try to defend himself. I saw Jamie’s face, Annie. He was crying… I don’t think… no… It definitely wasn’t because I’d hit him… I don’t think he meant to hurt you. I know I should’ve thumped him again. I mean, you’re my sister, I should…’
‘You really think he was sorry?’
‘Sorry?’ Henry shook his head. ‘More than sorry, he was devastated, Annie.’
‘When you found out what Craig had done to that cream, you should’ve told your dad, James,’ Rosie’s comment pulled me back from more memories. ‘After all, what happened to Annie wasn’t your fault.’
‘It was, Rosie. I was the one who gave Annie the stuff!’ James reminded us. ‘And my formula was probably bad enough before Craig added ten times the amount of Bobotuber pus, and all those other ingredients. It might’ve killed her! I deserved the black eye, Hen, and the Quidditch ban. I’m really sorry, Annie.’
‘Oh, shut up, James,’ I ordered. ‘You can’t keep apologising forever; it was two bloody years ago! And you made up for it.’
‘Yeah. You gave Annie a proper present on her twelfth. I’m supposed to be your best mate, but you’ve never bought me a birthday present.’ Henry’s complaint was an obvious tease, yet James rose to the bait.
‘You’ve never bought me one, either,’ James retorted. ‘Besides, I didn’t buy Annie anything, I just magically copied a picture out of a textbook and did a bit of research.’
‘Why was there a picture of that necklace Mum gave Annie in one of your school textbooks?’ Henry asked.
‘I told you last year!’ James rolled his eyes.
‘No, you didn’t,’ I reminded him. ‘You told me, and only me, and you made me promise not to tell anyone.’
‘I didn’t mean for you not to tell Hen,’ James protested. He turned apologetically to my brother. ‘Everyone else here knows, mate. It’s not the necklace, that’s just a silver chain. It’s the gem. It’s called the Bloodstone Claw, or sometimes Merlin’s Claw, which is wrong, because it wasn’t his. It belonged to Gwenddydd, Merlin’s twin sister! It’s lost! It’s not as famous in our world as Merlin is in yours. Most wizards have never heard of it, but a lot of magical historians have. I found the woodcut in an old book and recognised it. It’s the only known image of the claw. I wish you’d let me tell Professor Binns about it, Annie.’
‘No,’ I told him. ‘Mum wasn’t happy when she found out I’d let you lot see it. It’s supposed to be a family secret.’
‘I still think we should’ve told your mum and dad what Craig did.’ Rosie refused to be diverted.
‘But then they wouldn’t’ve let James invite them here last summer,’ Lily protested.
‘That might not have been a bad thing, Lily,’ Al suggested. ‘He wouldn’t’ve hexed Henry.’
‘Henry was being… Henry, and Craig’s not used to Muggles. He was a bit jealous of James having Muggle friends. Last summer was an accident,’ Lily protested.
‘When Scorpius visited last week, he wasn’t used to Muggles, either.’ Al reminded us. ‘But he didn’t resort to “accidental” magic.’
I was getting embarrassed by the conversation. James apologised about Craig every time he saw me. I was tired of his being so miserable about what he’d done, too. ‘I’m not bothered about your Hogwarts friends, James. Neither is Hen, are you?’
‘Na,’ Henry shook his head. ‘They’re not us.’
‘They can be your friends, but they’re not part of the Seven. And they never will be,’ I said firmly. My attempt to end the discussion wasn’t good quite enough, the others wouldn’t let it drop completely.
‘Craig can be a bit of an arse at times,’ James admitted. ‘But, so can I.’
‘That is so true,’ agreed Rosie with feeling. Al nodded.
‘We all can,’ Henry agreed. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have been so sarky to Craig, Jamie, but I’m not as forgiving as Annie.’
‘Don’t worry, I wanted to kick him the moment I saw him,’ I admitted.
‘We’ve all done stupid stuff,’ said Hugo.
‘Even Rosie,’ Al observed.
‘Just because I don’t like your friend Scorpius.’ Rosie protested, folding her arms and scowling.
‘It’s not you that doesn’t like him, it’s Dad!’ said Hugo slyly. ‘You quite like him, really, Rosie. I can tell.’
‘I do not!’ Rosie’s protest was too quick and much too strenuous. I exchanged a glance with Lily. The boys hadn’t picked up on it, but we had.
‘Scorpius!’ Lily pulled a dismissive face. ‘Surely you don’t fancy Scorpius.’
‘At least I don’t fancy Craig,’ Rosie spat back, surprising me.
‘Craig’s much nicer than Scorpius, in fact he’s really rather dreamy, and a lot better looking,’ Lily admitted. ‘I think James was right to forgive him. After all, no one who’s that good looking could be all bad, could they?’
‘Lily fancies Craig,’ Hugo sang. We might have teased Lily–or even Rosie–about their taste in boys, but I chose a very foolish way to disabuse Lily of her delusions.
‘You’re wrong about that, Lily, he is,’ I glared at James.
Although I’d intended my comment as an insult, I immediately realised what I’d actually said. It was too late; everyone else picked up on it, too. Lily’s surprise instantly turned to a calculating assessment of me.
‘James? James! D’you really thing James is good-looking?’ Henry pointed a finger at me and began to laugh.
‘And Annie fancies James!’ Hugo sang.
Instead of teasing Lily and Rosie about boys, I suddenly found myself on the defensive. Lily, gleefully grateful that her comment about Craig had been temporarily forgotten, dashed any hope that she would come to my aid. ‘James? Good-looking?’ she asked scornfully. ‘Seriously, Annie? Are you blind, stupid, or both?’ she asked.
‘Oh, get stuffed, the lot of you!’ I said angrily. ‘Scorpius is a wuss, and Craig’s a complete arse!
My aggressive attempt to shut them up simply confirmed my embarrassment. They all turned on me, preparing to tease me mercilessly. James silenced them, but not by coming to my rescue.
‘Everybody down!’ he ordered. His eyes were wide, and he was looking at a distant point over my shoulder.
His urgent and forceful command, coupled with his surprised and serious expression wwas enough. We all obeyed without hesitation. As we did, I heard what sounded like a distant balloon bursting. My first thought while I was collapsing sideways onto the stone was that James was simply diverting everyone. The distant sound, however, confirmed to me that he really had seen something.
Rolling onto his belly, James pulled himself between Al and I and peered over the edge of the stone into the distance. I twisted around on the uneven surface to join him, and so did the others.
‘What?’ Rosie asked.
‘Where?’ Henry demanded.
‘That sounded like somebody Disapparating,’ Al observed.
‘She’s standing at the edge of the forest,’ James whispered. ‘Some guy Apparated in with her. I didn’t really see him; he left immediately.
The “she” James referred to was at least half a mile away, probably more. She’s have been difficult to spot, had she not been wearing a pink tweed jacket and matching skirt. Her outfit was a bright beacon against the shadowy trees. Beside me, Lily adjusted her spectacles. I squinted and realised that we were looking at Mrs Pink-Person’s back.
‘Disapparating? Apparating?’ I asked.
‘We can’t…’ Rosie began.
‘It’s a way of travelling,’ Al told me. ‘You concentrate on the place you want to be, and force your way through the space from where you are to where you want to be. You have to be sixteen to learn, because it can be dangerous. It takes a lot of practice, and there’s usually a bang or a pop.’
‘Teleportation?’ asked Henry excitedly. ‘And with a Bamf! Just like Nightcrawler.’
‘Who?’ everyone else asked.
Henry and I exchanged our “something else they don’t know” eye roll, and he tried to explain. ‘X-men,’ my brother began. ‘Superhero cartoons, and he was in a couple of those old movies, Apocalypse and… Oh, never mind, Apocalypse was a terrible film anyway.’
‘Anyone have any idea who she is? Al asked.
‘She’s called Mrs Peculiar Pink-Person,’ I replied. ‘Triple-p, for short.’
There were murmurs of agreement.
‘She’s definitely up to something,’ said Al.
‘But she’s not looking at us,’ Henry added.
‘No, she’s watching Drakeshaugh,’ Lily observed.
‘Very suspicious,’ said Hugo.
‘We should tell Uncle Harry,’ Rosie suggested.
‘No!’ Once again, we all contradicted Rosie.
‘This is a proper adventure, Rosie,’ Hugo told his sister. ‘We’re supposed to have adventures. Mum and Dad had loads of adventures!’
‘The Drakestone Seven and the Mystery of the Mysterious Stranger,’ added Henry portentously. I wasn’t certain whether or not he was teasing us.
‘It might be dangerous,’ Rosie suggested. Her protest was half-hearted, and James immediately squashed it.
‘Dangerous?’ James asked. ‘Hugo’s right, Rosie. Think of all the things Mum and Dad and Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione had done by the time they were fifteen.’
‘You might be fifteen, James,’ Rosie reminded him, ‘but Hugo and Lily are only first-years.’
‘So what? You know what Mum and Dad and Uncle Harry did when they were first years,’ observed Hugo.
‘Yeah,’ Lily agreed.
Back to index
Chapter 15: Cunning PlanCunning Plan
Worried that we were exposed, we slithered backwards over the stone, away from the prying eyes of the mysterious stranger. Once we’d clambered down from our eyrie, safely out of sight, we began to discuss our next move. We’d barely started our discussions when Hugo pointed out that Mrs Peculiar-Pink-Person might be sneaking away. Although we’d made certain she couldn’t see us, that meant we couldn’t see her, either.
Lily, who had begun to fidget the moment we started planning, volunteered to sneak around the stone and keep watch on triple-p. James immediately promoted his sister to “chief lookout” and entrusted her with that important job. Knowing that we didn’t have long before Lily got bored, the rest of us rapidly worked on our scheme.
James and Henry came up with the idea. I thought it was brilliant, as did Hugo. Rosie and Al were less enthusiastic about their part in it. Rosie silently made it clear that she didn’t want the implied babysitting duties, but she didn’t verbalise her objections. If she had, Hugo would have gone crazy.
Al had a more practical complaint. ‘Never split up,’ he observed seriously. ‘We should stick together.’
‘We’re not really splitting up,’ James told his brother. ‘It’s a pincer movement. A team of four, and a team of three. Aurors work in teams of three, remember. And you can’t be part of the frontal assault group, Al. You look too much like Dad. We know she’s a witch, so it’s too risky.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with looking like Dad!’ Al’s muttered protest was now more about his appearance than the plan.
‘I didn’t say there was! But he’s famous. His picture’s always in the papers, and you’ve got his eyes, and his hair used to be the same colour as yours. She’s watching our house. That must mean she knows who we are; she’s certain to recognise you,’ James pointed out. ‘I’m worried that she might recognise me, too, which is why I’ll make certain she doesn’t see me.’
‘I could…’ Al began.
‘Yeah, you could, but we’re not little any more, it would be risky. I need you both to keep an eye on Lily-loo, too. You know what she’s like, and she’s much more likely to listen to you than me! Try to make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid.’
‘She won’t,’ I protested.
‘She might, Annie,’ Al reminded me. ‘Especially if she loses her temper.’
I couldn’t argue with that.
Our discussions over, we recalled our chief lookout. Lily reported that triple-p had moved, but not very far. She had unfolded a seat and was now sitting the shadowy edge of the trees, her Omnioculars still trained on Drakeshaugh.
Henry quickly explained our plan, and Lily was happy to go along with it. Then it was James’ turn to speak. Hunkering down in front of his sister, he looked up into her face. ‘Be careful, Lily, you too, Hugo. Rosie and Al are in charge, but keep an eye on them, for me, okay?’
‘Of course,’ Lily assured him seriously. Hugo nodded.
Standing, James turned his attention to Rose. ‘I don’t think there’ll be any trouble, Rosie. Triple-p doesn’t look very dangerous, does she?’
‘No,’ Rose agreed. ‘But neither do my mum and dad, especially Dad! And you know what they did.’
‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ James admitted. ‘You’d better be careful.’
‘You don’t really think she’ll attack us, do you?’ Rose asked.
James shook his head. ‘No, there are too many of us,’ he assured her. ‘But even if she does, we all have the trace on us. If we cast any spells to defend ourselves, the Improper Use of Magic Office will notify our folks pretty quick.’
‘True,’ Rose agreed. ‘And we can call for help on our Mirrorphones, too.’ She turned to her team. ‘Let’s go.’
Keeping her head down, and staying well back from the ridge, Rose led Al, Lily and Hugo toward West Wood. I remained behind the Drakestone, keeping an eye on them, while Henry and James crept around the corner to watch triple-p.
I watched the flanking party sneak through the undergrowth all the way to the wood. When they got there, Lily raised her hand. That was the sign I’d been waiting for. As they headed deeper into the trees, I gave Lily two thumbs up, and headed back to James and Henry. When I walked around the stone, my brother was crouching down behind a boulder. James, however, was nowhere to be seen.
Looking around suspiciously, I listened carefully. Hearing nothing but birdsong, the breeze blowing through the bracken, and the faint bleating of distant sheep, I spoke. ‘They’ve made it into the forest,’ I told my brother quietly. ‘Where’s James? Is he still here?’
Henry shook his head. ‘No. He thought it would be better if he was in front of us, not behind. Are you ready?’
I nodded, but remained on guard. I knew that, when it came to James, I couldn’t trust my brother to be honest with me. James was probably in front of us, like Hen said, but I knew he could be anywhere. Thrusting my arms out in front of me, I swung them round to the sides, and then pirouetted.
‘Happy?’ Henry asked, shaking his head.
‘Hell, yeah,’ I grinned, and deliberately misunderstood his question. ‘I’ve got permission to be cheeky!’
Henry and I set off down the boulder-strewn slope. We were heading towards the gravel track that ran past Drakeshaugh, a route that would take us very close to triple-p. I wasn’t worried. Four of our number were in the woods, trying to get behind her, and our secret weapon was somewhere unseen ahead of us. Henry and I made no attempt to conceal ourselves. That would have looked suspicious.
‘We should look like we’re talking to each other,’ Henry told me.
‘We are, now,’ I pointed out sarcastically. ‘And don’t look straight at her, Hen!’ I pointed at the hills on the horizon. ‘If you point your head towards Cold Law and Gills Law, you should be able to see her out of the corner of your eyes without making it bloody obvious.’
‘She’s still got her binoculars glued to her face and, like Lily said, they’re trained on Drakeshaugh,’ he observed dismissively. ‘We should be able to get a lot closer before she notices us.’
‘Even so, we shouldn’t make it obvious that we know she’s there.’ I argued. ‘We should look, without looking like we’re looking.’ I was tingling with excitement, and my heart was hammering in my chest. This wasn’t a game. It was a real adventure, like in the stories. It was a chance for my brother and I to confront a real, and hopefully unsuspecting, witch. It could be dangerous.
‘Okay,’ Henry agreed.
‘So, if we’re going to talk, what’re we going to talk about? I think Scorpius Malfoy and Rosie fancy each other, what d’you reckon?’ I asked, trying to take my mind off my increasing doubts about the wisdom of our actions.
Henry ignored my suggested subject. ‘Never mind Scorpius, what about you! What did you mean, when you were talking about James? D’you fancy him, Annie?’
‘Personally, I think Scorpius is a bit weird,’ I tried to divert Henry. ‘Even for a wizard.’
‘James’ll be sixteen in October, and you’re only just thirteen,’ Henry ignored my comment, and continued to press me. ‘He’s two-and-a-half years older than you, Annie. That’s way too old. Imagine what you’d say if I tried chasing after one of your classmates.’
‘Which one do you fancy?’ I asked. ‘Is it Sheera?’
‘Sheera? Who the hell is Sheera?’ he said. ‘Stop changing the subject, Annabel May.’
‘You know who she is!’ I protested, annoyed by his use of my full name. ‘And you do fancy her, Henry John, I’m sure of it. You defended her.’
‘I did? When? Oh,’ he finally made the connection. ‘Chunky lass, bad acne, a bit goofy, braces in her teeth. That’s her?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘And now she fancies you!’
‘All I did was tell them other two lasses to leave her alone!’
‘That’s enough!’ I told him.
‘More than enough, apparently,’ replied Henry derisively. ‘After all, James almost killed you, and you still fancy him.’
‘James didn’t do that. It was that arse Craig!’ I protested. Henry’s upraised eyebrow was enough to make me realise that, for the first time ever, defending his best friend wasn’t the wisest thing for me to do. I amended my argument.
‘I was simply trying to get at Lily!’ I complained. ‘She said, “No one that good-looking can be all bad,” and she was talking about Craig! Like I said, it was Craig who almost killed me. And anyway, looks and personality aren’t the same thing, so what Lily said is utter bollocks, isn’t it?’
‘I probably shouldn’t’ve used James as an example,’ I protested. ‘But who else was I supposed to choose?’
‘Well, I always thought you and Al were close,’ observed Henry quietly.
‘We are,’ I said. ‘But Al’s my friend, Hen. I don’t fancy him!’
‘Aha. “I don’t fancy him!” That’s a straightforward denial sis,’ Henry leapt on my words. ‘And you know what’s really interesting about that? You haven’t said the same about James. When I mention James, all you do is vacillate.’
‘Vacillate!’ I said scornfully. ‘Sometimes I think you just sit and read the dictionary.’
‘And that’s another non-answer,’ he told me gleefully. ‘I’m not a complete nincompoop, you know. Do you fancy James, yes or no?’
‘Your friend James can be a complete pain in the arse,’ I said.
‘As can you, Annabel. Especially when I ask you a simple yes or no question and you refuse to give me a straight answer. Like I said… Vacillate, Vacillate!’ He put on a Dalek-voice.
‘And you’re still in lurve with the Doctor!’ I retorted. ‘You like blondes, don’t you? You’re a pathetic nerd!’
‘Is that the best you’ve got?’ asked Henry, scornfully. ‘I’m still waiting, and you still haven’t denied it!’
‘Maybe I’m just winding you up, Hen,’ I told him. ‘Or maybe I’m simply worried that James is actually right next to us, and I don’t want to give the arrogant arsehole any opportunity to take the piss out of me.’
‘Bugger! We’ve been talking so loudly that she’s heard us,’ Henry said. ‘She’s watching us. Don’t mention Jamie.’
‘I’m not that daft,’ I told him huffily.
I looked across at triple-p, who was now little more than fifty yards from us. She’d dropped her binoculars, and was staring at us. Smiling, I nodded politely, and took the opportunity to take a good look at her. The pink tweed suit she wore was ill-fitting, and her bright red Alice band would have looked out of place even if she were thirty years younger. She was a big woman who’d seen hard times. Her flaccid jowls, flabby chins and pallid face gave the impression of someone who hadn’t seen much sun, or exercise, for many years.
As we got closer she smiled, or at least her thin lips attempted to curl up at the edges. It was a wasted effort, her piggy little eyes showed how much she despised us. From her expression, you’d think she was examining dog-shite on her shoe, not two smiling teenagers. It was obvious that her only concern was how to remove us without sullying herself in the process. As I stared, I wondered whether her expression was reserved for us as interlopers, whether it was because we were Muggles, or if it was a general hatred of all young people.
At fifteen yards, we were the closest we’d get to her, unless we turned off our path and walked into the woods, a direct approach. ‘This is ganna be fun,’ I said quietly to my brother. I waved at her. She looked horrified, but managed to force the world’s falsest smile onto her face. It was obvious she didn’t get much practice at smiling. ‘Full on Geordie, you reckon?’
‘Go and work yer ticket, Annie,’ Henry encouraged me.
I ran on ahead splashing through a couple of muddy puddles.
‘Hello, little girl,’ her voice was high pitched and girlish. ‘You must be a long way from home.’
‘Nah,’ I shook my head, and went in full-throttle. ‘Ah live just up the road. Canny clarty round here, like. Wat ye’ deein, missus? Them’s reet funny-lookin’ binoclears. Wat yer lookin’ at?’ As I expected, she had no idea what I’d said.
‘Speak English, child,’ she ordered.
‘Ah yam,’ I told her, laying the accent on thickly. ‘Looks like yer watchin’ Drakeshaugh? Why’s yer watchin Drakeshaugh?’
‘Drakeshaugh?’ triple-p said. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Her voice had increased in pitch, and she was trying to laugh off my enquiry. It didn’t work. She looked even less comfortable in the great outdoors than my Uncle Richard, and he was the sort who got twitchy in Regent’s Park.
‘That hoose ower there.’ I spoke knowledgeably, and pointed. ‘That’s Drakeshaugh, that is. So what are yer lookin’ at missus? I’m Annie by the way.’
‘I’m a bird watcher, Annie,’ the woman replied through clenched teeth. ‘And you’re making such a lot of noise. You’re frightening the birds away. Please be quiet, and leave me in peace.’
I should probably have expected her reply, after all there are very few innocent explanations for sitting in a woodland staring through a pair of binoculars. Although I’d been trying to complete my part of the mission, which was to get her name, her response was a gift I grabbed with both hands.
‘It’s okay Henry,’ I called back to my brother. He was carefully edging around the puddle I’d run through. ‘She’s not spying on the Potters, she’s a bird-watcher.’
Henry’s face lit up. ‘What’ve you seen so far?’ he asked her.
‘The Potters?’ she asked.
‘The people whose house you’re watching,’ I said, certain that her surprise was due to the fact I knew the name of the residents of Drakeshaugh.
‘I’ve already told you, I’m not watching the house,’ she was trying very hard to keep her temper in check. Her mouth was no more than a narrow slash in her face. She kept it straight and firm, but her chins and jowls trembled with suppressed rage.
‘So, what birds have you seen so far?’ Henry asked again.
It was obvious that it was a question she didn’t want to answer.
‘Nothing much... Robins,’ she suggested hesitantly. ‘But not much else.’
‘That’s because you’re here,’ Henry told her knowledgeably. ‘You don’t want to sit here.’
I saw anxiety in her expression, and pressed the attack. ‘Henry’s really clever, he knows lots and lots about birds,’ I told her proudly. It was true, but his interest in birds was something I usually teased him about. I’d never before praised him for it. The snort behind me was, I knew, his attempt to disguise his surprise at my compliment.
‘You should listen to him, Missus…’ I continued, pausing to give her another opportunity to tell me her name. She didn’t take it. I looked down at the plump fingers of her left hand. There were no rings on her third finger, so I stuck the knife in. ‘Oh, sorry, Miss…’ I added. ‘No offence meant. Mum once told me that some elderly spinsters don’t like to be called missus.’ She managed to remain silent under my onslaught, but her left eye was beginning to twitch.
‘There’s starlings everywhere, and at least one nest of Magpies in Drakeshaugh Wood, but you won’t see much more from here,’ Henry continued to be annoyingly helpful. ‘You’d be better off turning ’round. There are tits nesting in the woods behind you, and I’ve heard a woodpecker. I saw it a couple of times, too, but it’s difficult to spot.’ It was fortunate that she didn’t look around, as he suggested, because Rosie and the others were stealthily approaching her from behind.
‘Tits!’ I sniggered. ‘Henry’s always looking at tits, aren’t you?’
‘Don’t be so childish, Annie.’ Henry scolded. ‘I’m sorry about my sister,’ he apologised to the woman. ‘She’s not really interested in birds. But this isn’t a good spot, honest.’
‘It’s good enough for me, young man,’ she said firmly. ‘But I’d like to be left in peace, please.’
It was Henry’s turn to divert her. He grabbed the opportunity she’d presented him with.
‘You should come with me,’ Henry suggested, pointing back up towards the stone. ‘If we go up onto the ridge you’ll get a good view over the moors, too. I’ve seen a merlin… and lapwings, and sparrowhawks up there; I even saw a chough, once.’
‘I’m quite happy here, thank you,’ she said firmly. Her lips barely moved as she spoke.
Triple-p had been unable to mask her concern when Henry said “merlin”, her relief when he continued his list, or her complete lack of knowledge when he mentioned the chough. I could still remember how excited he’d been the day he saw the chough; I knew triple-p should have been as impressed as Mum had been. Instead, she was approaching boiling point. Best of all, because she was fixated on us, she hadn’t noticed how close Rosie and the others were getting. They were moving very quietly through the trees, and soon they’d be close enough to get a good look at her face.
‘Dad said he saw a great auk last weekend,’ Henry tried again. I knew that Dad knew almost as little about birds as I did. Mum was the country girl, and the expert. As Henry spoke, some half-remembered conversation about dodos made me think that great auks were extinct. Triple-p didn’t even blink when he mentioned them. I was left in no doubt that she, like Dad, was a city-dweller. Unlike Dad, however, it seemed she was completely ignorant of her ignorance.
‘Just go away!’ she snapped. ‘How can I watch the birds if you silly children are chattering and scaring them away!’
‘We’ll go, in a minute,’ I assured her. ‘But my friends Lily and Al Potter are ’sploring the woods with their cousins. They’re just behind you.’
The woman’s pallid face turned grey. In her haste to stand, turn, and face them, she knocked over her folding chair, stumbled over its legs, and ended up on her hands and knees on the ground. Henry went to help her up, but she angrily waved him away.
‘That was your fault!’ she told me. ‘You startled me, you wretched child!’
‘Hi, Annie, hello, Henry’ Lily called. ‘Long time no see. Who’s your new friend?’
‘I thought she was spying on your house, Lily, but she says she’s just a birdwatcher,’ I replied. ‘But she won’t us her name, so p’rhaps she is a spy.’
Triple-p’s mouth opened and closed like a feeding goldfish and, like a feeding goldfish, no words came out.
‘Maybe I should tell Mum,’ said Al quietly.
‘There’s no need for that, Al,’ triple-p said, struggling to her feet. ‘I’m simply here to watch the birds, I’m not spying on anyone.’
‘How d’you know that he’s Al?’ Rosie asked sharply.
‘This girl just told me!’ Triple-p blustered, trying to dismiss the question.
‘No, she said “Lily and Al and their cousins”,’ Al pointed out.
‘How d’you know I’m not Al?’ enquired Hugo politely.
‘It might even be me,’ suggested Lily. ‘Perhaps my name’s Alison!’ She rather spoiled the statement by winking at me.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, I know … what an impertinent question that is!’ Her outburst, and her pathetic attempt to cover her mistake, was followed by silence. We all watched in silence as she hastily tried to think of an excuse, and saw the look of triumph as she worked it out. ‘Al here said “Mum”. And this Annie person said that the Potter’s live in that house!’ she said triumphantly. As she spoke to Hugo, she indicated Al, and tried to affix her faux-friendly smile back on her face. ‘Obviously, this is Al. And who are you, young man?’
‘I’m Hugo Granger-Weasley, and this is my sister, Rose,’ Hugo told her. When she heard that name, triple-p’s panic became obvious. She shuffled sideways in an attempt to keep an eye on all of us. We spread out and encircled her, making it impossible.
‘Do I know you?’ It was Rosie’s turn to ask a question. ‘You were watching Uncle Harry’s house, and you look vaguely familiar. Have we met?’ she looked meaningfully at us, and then back to the woman.
‘I have no idea who you are, or what you are talking about,’ she protested, shaking visibly. ‘Just leave me alone, please.’
‘Okay,’ said Al abruptly. ‘How’s school, Annie?’
‘Bore-ring,’ I said dismissively. ‘You home from your boarding school for the Easter holidays, Al?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Shall we go up to the stone, like we used to when we were little?’
‘I think we should probably go home and speak to Mum,’ Lily said. She glared at triple-p. ‘Why won’t you tell us your name?’
‘Because it’s none of your business,’ the woman snapped.
‘Yeah, I think we should definitely go and tell Aunt Ginny,’ advised Hugo.
‘No need for that, young man,’ she said desperately. ‘If you must know, my name is… Cracknell,’ she tried to retain her smile as she spoke, but she spat out the name as though she were ashamed of it. Taking a deep breath, she forced the smile to stay on her face. ‘I’m Do…rothy Cracknell. Now, why don’t you just go away and leave me to do my birdwatching in peace.’ Her smile was desperate. She turned to me. ‘You can go and play with your friends, little girl. Won’t that be nice?’
‘I’m thirteen, not six!’ I told her scornfully. Looking past the woman, whose name certainly wasn’t Dorothy Cracknell, I checked with Rosie. She nodded, and glanced meaningfully up at the Drakestone.
‘Goodbye, Miss Cracknell,’ I said politely. ‘It’s been so nice to meet you. I hope you see some puffins, or gannets, or cormorants, or whatever; and don’t forget to count the magpies! One’s for sorrow, two’s for joy…’
‘What did you say your name was, young lady?’ she asked sharply, interrupting my song.
‘Annie,’ I said.
Her eyes narrowed. ‘And what’s your last name, Annie?’ she asked sweetly.
‘Hadaway man, woman,’ I said cheekily. ‘Ah’ve telt yer me name, but ye forgot it. Weird how you remembered Al’s, in’t it?’ Turning, I ran, raised a fist, and shouted, ‘Drakestone!’
‘Drakestone,’ Lily yelled as she followed. The others joined in our chorus.
I waited until we were halfway back to the stone before I slowed to a walk.
‘Well?’ Henry asked. ‘What does everyone think about Miss Cracknell.’
‘She totally, obviously, made that name up,’ said Hugo. ‘She’s not triple-p any longer! She’s Toad-face.’
‘No, she’s Miss Bum-crack, and she’s a liar, liar, pants on fire,’ said Lily.
‘So, she’s Miss Burnt-bum-crack!’ I suggested.
‘Annie!’ Rosie protested. Al, Hugo, and Lily laughed. My brother groaned.
‘She’s definitely a witch, Rosie,’ said Lily. ‘She was watching Drakeshaugh through a brand-new pair of McClarity fifteen-times Super-Zoom Omniocculars. They’re expensive! They’ve got both a replay, and a save sound and image, function. She’s a witch, and she recognised us. I didn’t believe anything she told us. And neither did you!’
‘None of us did, Lils,’ Al assured his sister. ‘They were McClarity Super-Zooms, were they? That’s what the Aurors use.’
‘They’re top of the range,’ agreed Rosie.
‘I thought they worked like binoculars. How can you record something on them?’ Hen asked.
‘Magic, you dope!’ I gave him a playful nudge as I reminded him. Hen was always much more confused by magic than me. ‘Just accept it! You’ve seen James’s cloak often enough.’
‘Yeah, it’s only magic,’ Al grinned at me, then turned to my brother. ‘You’ll just have to trust us, Henry. Like I trust you about birds. I don’t know anything about them, but she doesn’t either, does she?’
‘Not a thing,’ my brother told him confidently. ‘She could probably tell an owl from a seagull, but I could easily have pulled her to bits about it. I could’ve asked her about her weird binoculars, too. I didn’t see the point. You all got a good, close-up, look at her. Mission accomplished. Anyone recognise her?’
‘We don’t know every with and wizard in the country, Hen,’ objected Rosie. Despite her protest, there was a thoughtful look on her face. ‘But… I sort-of-recognised her.’
‘Me too.’ Al nodded.
‘What do you mean, you sort of recognised her?’ I asked.
‘I’m not sure. It’s more than just a feeling, but…’ Rosie was deep in thought.
‘It’s like… It’s like I’ve seen her before, but never met her,’ Al tried to explain. ‘Maybe I’ve seen her picture.’
‘That’s it!’ Rosie nodded excitedly. ‘I’ve seen her picture somewhere.’
‘Well I didn’t recognise her at all,’ Lily observed thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps she’s in one of your third-year textbooks, Al.’
‘No,’ Hugo shook his head firmly. ‘Because I’m sure I’ve seen her somewhere, too, Lils.’
‘Perhaps she’s been in the Prophet,’ Al suggested. ‘And if you didn’t recognise her, Lily, at least we can be certain of one thing…’
‘If she was in the Prophet, it wasn’t in the Quidditch section,’ Hugo jumped in with the punchline, as Al winked at us.
‘True,’ Lily agreed, grinning.
‘So, what’re we going to do?’ Henry asked. ‘She lied to us about being a birdwatcher, she’s got magic binoculars, so she’s a witch, and she’s spying on Drakeshaugh. Do we try to figure out who she is by ourselves, or do we tell your folks, Al?’
‘We wait for James to get here,’ I interjected forcefully. ‘With all that commotion we created, he probably managed to sneak up and stand right next to her. He might already know who she is.’
‘She’s pointing the Omniocculars at us,’ warned Hugo. ‘We’d better shut up.’
We all turned to look, but she’d moved to look away from us.
‘How long?’ Rosie asked.
‘Dunno,’ Hugo admitted. ‘I turned around to check on her, and she was looking right at us.’
Lily pushed her glasses up her nose, and squinted at toad-face. ‘Now she’s looking to see if we’re still watching her.’ She waved.
‘Best keep quiet until we get back to the stone,’ Henry suggested.
We quickened our pace, and scrambled up the rock-strewn slope. Soon, we were safely back behind the stone. Henry turned to Rosie.
‘Can she really hear us through those Onmioccular-things?’ he asked her.
‘Yes,’ Rosie nodded. ‘But only if she can see us. We should be safe here.’
‘She’s our enemy!’ Lily declared. ‘Ours! We need to watch her, to make sure she doesn’t escape.’ She caught my eye, and nodded at the stone. ‘C’mon, Annie!’
Lily scampered up the stone. Despite Rosie’s protests, I followed closely. Once at the top, Lily and I moved across the uneven surface, and stared back down the valley. The woman wasn’t where we’d last seen her.
‘So, where’s Dotty Bumcrack, Lils?’ I asked.
Lily pointed into the woods.
Behind me, I heard the others scrambling up the stone.
‘She’s moved further back into the woods,’ Lily pointed. ‘She’s not looking at us, or at Drakeshaugh. I can’t see what she’s doing.’
‘Never mind her, where the hell’s Jamie?’ Henry asked.
‘James could be anywhere.’ I said. ‘He complains about others being unreliable, but he’s no better. He should’ve let someone else go with him under his cloak.’
‘If he doesn’t get here soon, we should let Aunt Ginny know,’ said Rosie worriedly.
‘I am here,’ James announced pulling off his cloak. ‘And I know who she is!’
‘Who?’ we chorused.
‘She’s just got out of Azkaban, and she’s been in prison for twenty years,’ James began. ‘Her name’s…’
‘Dolores Umbridge!’ Rose, Al, and Hugo spoke as one.
There were three loud cracks, and Umbridge arrived at the foot of the stone. There were two rough-looking men with her.
She pointed her wand at James, who yelled, ‘Down!’ and dropped to the floor. The beam of scarlet light hit my brother squarely in the chest, knocking him backwards off the stone. The others obeyed, I simply stared down at the woman who’d attacked my brother.
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