|SIYE Time:16:30 on 21st September 2018|
Strangers at Drakeshaugh
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Category: Post-Hogwarts, Post-DH/AB, Post-DH/PM
Genres: Drama, Fluff, General, Romance
Warnings: Mild Language
Story is Complete
Summary: The locals in a sleepy corner of the Cheviot Hills are surprised to discover that they have new neighbours. Who are the strangers at Drakeshaugh?
Hitcount: Story Total: 184871; Chapter Total: 2580
Awards: View Trophy Room
Close to Home
I should have taken my own advice and waited for a few minutes before driving home, but I’d been desperate to escape from the other mums at the gate. Annie had seemed to sense my mood. She’d become a little fractious when the other mums surrounded us. Her obvious unhappiness allowed me to use her as an excuse to leave. As I walked away, I heard Amanda and some of the others begin to make ever-wilder speculations about what Harry’s message really meant.
‘AK, that’s some sort of gun, isn’t it?’ Amanda asked. I’d had the same thought myself.
My imagination was exploding like a murmuration of starlings with a sparrowhawk in their midst. I was unable to stop myself speculating about what I’d heard. On a couple of occasions during the journey home, I found the car drifting over to the right. It’s a good thing that the roads up the valley are quiet and that there was nothing travelling in the opposite direction.
AK — Auror Killed? Emergency Port Key? I knew that there was more to the mystery than Harry was telling me. Was there an international element? People smuggling? I tried to remember what the acronym stood for. A.U.R.Or–Anti-terrorist Units in Regional Organisations–that was it. Despite what he’d told me, this couldn’t simply be a murder case. Everyone had stopped talking about Greyback, too. Perhaps Harry really was a spy, perhaps he had a helicopter waiting for him at the airport, perhaps he really was James Bond–James Bond with a wife and three kids.
I was in still something of a daze when I pulled onto the drive at Lintzgarth. When I tried to unlock my kitchen door, I discovered that my hand was shaking. Thinking back to my journey home, I was horrified to discover that most of it was a blur. I could remember virtually nothing; I couldn’t even remember if I’d played music for Annie. My conclusion, that I had, was based simply on the fact that she hadn’t complained.
When we got inside the house, I helped Annie with her shoes, carried her into the lounge, and settled her on the floor with her toys. My mind was still flitting through the morning’s events, unable to settle. I tried to be cheerful for my daughter’s sake; it wasn’t easy. No matter how much I tried to lock the events at the school gate inside a box, the lid stubbornly refused to stay shut.
The words were always the first to flap their way into my consciousness. The grief-stricken voice of Martha, whose attempt to remain detached and professional had failed, flew through my head, depressing and distracting me.
“Only three lives detected.”
“Polly, Dennis, and Trudi had the trainee … Miss Cattermole … with them.”
Who, I wondered, was AK Auror Killed? Was one of the four dead? How could Martha and–Anne, that was the name–be so certain only minutes after the alarm? How badly were the others hurt?
“All four members of Polly’s team are missing, apparently buried under the building.”
Not Dennis, please, not Dennis, I prayed, thinking back to the Potters’ party and the long conversation Mike and I had had with Dennis and the heavily pregnant Lesley. Cheerful, car-mad little Dennis, the most normal of Harry and Ginny’s friends, couldn’t be dead; that would be unthinkably cruel.
The more I dwelt on that particular thought, the deeper I drowned in sadness and guilt. Who was I to decide, to wish for one life above the others?
Polly, the brash and heavily made-up Goth woman we’d met outside the pool on our very first swimming trip with the Potters was weird, and a little disconcerting, but she’d been friendly enough in her own brash and eccentric way. I couldn’t live with the idea of wanting her dead in Dennis’ place.
The same was true for Trudi Corner. I’d hardly spoken to her at the party because she’d come across as combative and angry. But even if I hadn’t been keen on her, she had a husband. Whether or not I liked, or trusted, Trudi was immaterial. If Trudi was dead, then her long-haired, beardy, computer-expert husband, Michael–a man who shared his first name with my husband–would be a widower. That idea was equally unbearable.
That left a trainee I’d never heard of, Miss Cattermole. Was I really the sort of person who would wish death on some young trainee, simply because I didn’t know her? Tears began to form in my eyes.
Throwing her arms around my legs, Annie forcefully pulled me back to the here and now. She almost knocked me over. I’d been standing in the middle of the living room, staring into an abyss of anxiety. The sheer physicality of Annie’s attempt to comfort me hauled me back from the brink.
‘There, there, Mammy,’ she told me. ‘Whassa ma’er? Tell me all ‘bout it an’ we’ll make it all better.’
I looked down at my daughter and smiled. She could sense that something was wrong and was clumsily trying to use the words of comfort she’d heard so many times on my lips. I picked her up and hugged her.
‘I’m okay, Annie,’ I assured her. ‘Mummy’s just a bit worried. One of James’s Dad’s friends might be … hurt … so she’s going to put the news on for a few minutes, okay?’ I said.
I sat on the sofa. Annie clambered up next to me, scrambled onto my lap, and proceeded to hug me. It was with a lot of trepidation that I turned the TV to the BBC News Channel. The woman sitting at the news desk was talking to a political correspondent about the British National Party. The scrolling text across the bottom of the screen was all about the FTSE 100, Barbara Windsor, and foreign wars. I watched and waited for several minutes, but the report continued and the scrolling headlines didn’t change. There were no reports of any deaths, or even of a collapsed building in Sheffield. There was nothing else about the Sheffield murders, either. After ten minutes of seeing no news I was interested in, Annie began to squirm. I switched off the TV.
‘What do you want to play?’ I asked as I lifted her off my lap and placed her on the floor. I slid off the sofa to join her.
‘Gonna sing for Mammy,’ she announced.
I had to smile. I would often sing to her when she was sad, so she was going to do the same for me. Unfortunately, in her attempt to cheer me up, Annie decided that she would sing “Felton Lonnen”. I had to stop her. I knew that if her sweet little voice got as far as “I’d rather loss all the kye than loss me hinny,” I would burst into tears. While the song was simply a lament for a missing child–who is found in most versions I’ve heard–and not a tale of death, I knew even that would be too much for me.
‘I’ll teach you a new song,’ I told her. ‘It’s called “The Water of Tyne” and it’s all about a lassie who lives on one side of a river, while her laddie lives on the other.’
As I spoke, I had an idea. Perhaps now would be a good time to let my daughter hear me play. Singing along with Annie would help, but I needed more. I needed to stop thinking, concentrating on the pipes always calmed me, and forced me to forget my concerns. As I stared down into Annie’s eager little face, I decided that now was the time.
Before we were married, Mike used to boast that I’m multi-talented. It took me years to persuade him not to embarrass me like that. I have a few swimming medals, but nothing at national level; I can hold a tune, but I’m not exactly Adele, or Amy Winehouse; and I’m an adequate piper, but no Kathryn Tickell. In truth, I’m a boring and very ordinary person. Nevertheless, I needed something to take my mind off things. The alternative was baking, but Annie wanted to sing.
‘I’ll be back in a minute, Annie,’ I told her.
Dashing upstairs I dragged the stool from under my dressing table and over to the wardrobe. Climbing onto the stool, I carefully lifted my pipe bag down from the top of the wardrobe, blew the dust from it, and sneezed.
‘Bless you,’ Annie shouted from downstairs.
‘Thanks, Annie,’ I replied.
To my surprise, the mere anticipation was enough to cheer me up. As I climbed down from the stool, I could feel the smile on my face. Henry had been petrified of the pipes when he was a baby; he’d cried whenever I’d tried to play. I’d put them away. They’d been on top of the wardrobe for at least three years. Hopeful that Annie would be more receptive than her brother, and praying that I hadn’t forgotten how to play, I took the bag downstairs. My daughter already seemed to be more musical than her brother, so I hoped she’d appreciate my efforts.
‘Do you know what these are?’ I asked Annie when I walked back into the room. I unfastened the bag and pulled out the pipes. Picking up the bellows, I gave them a couple of gentle squeezes before sliding the belt around my waist. The bag shifted, and the pipes groaned.
She shook her head and watched curiously as I placed the bellows under my elbow and tried to fasten the belt. Annie was unperturbed by the sad sigh emanating from the pipes. I, however, was horrified to discover that I was fastening the belt one notch away from the one I’d always used, and even that notch was a little tight. I had expanded in the years since I’d last played. That was Annie’s fault.
‘They’re called smallpipes, Annie, or Northumbrian pipes,’ I told her.
Settling the bag under my left elbow, I began pumping the bellows with my right. The bag began to fill, and the drone began its expectant whine. Annie watched in fascinated silence as I continued to pump the bellows. As soon as I could, I applied pressure to the bag and fingered the pipes.
Despite my promise to teach her The Water of Tyne, I found myself playing Bobbie Shafto. Annie recognised it immediately. Enchanted by the tune, she began singing. We spent the remainder of the morning singing, and playing. By lunchtime she was beginning to remember the words to The Water of Tyne.
As I made lunch, I switched on the kitchen television and listened to the news. Again, there was no mention of the Sheffield murders in the headlines. When Annie and I sat down to eat, the news had passed through crime and politics–both national and international–and had moved beyond foreign wars to the human-interest stories. We were still eating when the news ended with no reports of an explosion, or a collapsed building, and no mention of any deaths. There wasn’t even any mention of the previous killings, or progress on the case.
It seemed that, since the last double murder, the Sheffield killings had completely vanished from the national news. Harry had told me that someone had been arrested, but there was no mention of that, either. Perhaps no one had died, perhaps the morning’s message to Harry was all a mistake, a false alarm, or, perhaps my wildest speculations were correct and it was all hush-hush and being covered up.
As the local news began, I wondered if the story had been relegated there. I was fairly sure that there was a way I could get access to the other Look Norths, rather than our “North East and Cumbria” edition, but that would involve switching on the computer and going online. It would be pointless, I assured myself. Anything associated with the Sheffield murders was certain to make the national news.
As the local news continued, I pondered the fourth name “The trainee, Cattermole.” Why would they take a trainee into a dangerous situation? Perhaps because it wasn’t supposed to be a dangerous situation.
I let Annie help me stack the plates in the dishwasher and wondered what to do. I’d played the pipes for long enough, possibly too long. My shoulder muscles told me it was time to put the pipes away. Singing and playing the pipes had cheered me up, but enough was enough.
As the afternoon progressed, my concerns bubbled in the back of my mind. I began to fret. On three occasions, I picked up the phone to call Ginny. Each time I replaced the handset without dialling. If Ginny wanted to contact me, she had my number. Why hadn’t she phoned?
Her remarks the previous afternoon, “He doesn’t phone me with updates during the day, you know” finally resurfaced. Was it possible that she knew no more than me? Was it possible that she knew less? My worry continued to increase and I cracked. It was ten to three, only minutes before I would normally set off to collect Henry from school. If Ginny knew nothing, if Harry hadn’t spoken to her, I needed to warn her of the reception she was likely to get at the gates. Picking up the phone, I dialled her number.
When she answered, I didn’t let her speak. She’d barely finished saying, ‘Hello, Jacqui,’ when I interrupted her.
‘I’m setting off now to collect Henry,’ I told her. ‘I don’t know whether Harry’s told you, but he was dragged away by an emergency call this morning.’
‘I know, Jacqui.’ She sounded low, but I had made my plan, so I put my curiosity on a short leash and pressed on.
‘I don’t know what’s going on. I can collect James for you. I did say that if you need help–if you need anything at all–you just need to ask. Like I said, I don’t know what’s going on, but the call Harry got this morning was very public. I was standing right next to him, and most of the other mums were close by. After he left, they were desperate to find out what I’d heard. If you go to collect James, you’ll face an interrogation from the other mums.
‘I’ll have to face them sometime, Jacqui,’ said Ginny. She was trying to be her usual forceful self, but her protest lacked its usual passion.
‘I know, but you don’t have to do it tonight,’ I said. ‘If you want to put off the inquisition for a day, I wouldn’t blame you. I could collect James for you. It might be for the best. I can’t tell anyone anything, because I don’t know anything. It would spare Al and Lily, and James for that matter, from the mob.’
There was silence.
‘Are you still there?’ I asked. ‘I’m going to have to leave soon, so…’
‘Still here.’ Her voice was little more than a whisper. I waited for her decision.
‘Given what’s happened, I don’t want any questions, not today,’ Ginny admitted. ‘It will upset me, and the kids. Are you sure you don’t mind?’
‘Not at all,’ I assured her. ‘No problems, Ginny. That’s what friends are for, isn’t it?’
‘It is, thanks,’ she sounded genuinely grateful. ‘I’ll put the kettle on in half-an-hour or so. It will be good to have someone to talk to. It’s…’
‘I’d better go, Ginny,’ I interrupted again. ‘I don’t want to be late to collect the boys, and the less I know, the less I’ll have to tell the others. That way I won’t be delayed. See you soon.’
‘Thanks a lot, Jacqui. See you soon.’
Ginny knew something, that was obvious. I promised myself that I wouldn’t press her. Not even when I took James home, I told myself firmly. If she didn’t volunteer the information, I wouldn’t ask.
The instant I hung up, I realised that I couldn’t simply drive to school, pick up the boys, and drive back to Drakeshaugh as I’d planned. I didn’t have a car seat for James, what could I do? While strapping Annie into her seat, I improvised a plan. Once she was safely in the car, I dashed back into the house, picked up her buggy, and put it in the boot.
Rather than drive all the way down to the school, I parked in the castle car park, got Annie into her buggy, and hastily pushed her down to the school gates. I arrived only moments before the bell, and my breathless arrival without a car was noted by the other mums. I fended off questions regarding Harry’s case by honestly stating that I’d heard nothing since the morning, and that Ginny had asked me to collect James.
It was obvious that Amanda, for one, didn’t believe me. She implied that the fact I’d arrived on foot meant that I’d walked down from Drakeshaugh. To my astonishment, Mary intervened on my behalf.
‘I’m sure that if Jacqui knew anything, she’d tell us,’ Mary boomed. She looked a lot better than she had the previous afternoon. Pushing her way through the throng, she handed me my scruffy old Barbour coat. ‘Not exactly glamorous, but it kept the wind out while I waited, thank you,’ she said.
‘You’re welcome,’ I said. ‘How’s the car?’
‘Much better,’ she told me. ‘Ah, here’s Helen, goodbye!’ Her final word was straight from the old Mary. It meant “this discussion is over”, and it worked. I’d arrived so late to the school that the kids were already starting to come out; Mary’s goodbye was my opportunity to escape.
‘I’m taking you to Drakeshaugh, James,’ I told him as he looked around for his mother. ‘Because your Mum is busy.’
‘Where’s a car?’ Henry asked me.
‘It’s up the road, at the castle car park,’ I told him. ‘We’re walking to Drakeshaugh, because I don’t have a car seat for James.’
‘Walking?’ Henry asked. I sensed a protest coming on.
‘I always walks home,’ James reminded him. ‘Cos my mummy don’t got no car, ’member?’
That was the end of Henry’s protest. He shrugged, and his imagination took over. ‘Where we going, Jamie?’ he asked. ‘Onna bear hunt?’
‘We’re going on a bear hunt!’ James confirmed.
‘Did you hear that story today?’ I asked them.
‘Yeah,’ they confirmed as they trotted up the road ahead of me.
‘Keep to the side of the road, Henry,’ I ordered. He was zigzagging up the road with no regard for any potential danger.
‘Swot Mummy says, too,’ James said wisely. ‘Else cars could come an’ squish us.’
‘That’s right, James,’ I said. ‘We need to be careful of cars, don’t we?’
The boys were happy, and Henry was obviously looking forward to going to Drakeshaugh. Despite having been together all day at school, they still seemed able to find stuff to talk about. Their speed fluctuated woldly as they scampered excitedly ahead of me, dawdled to talk, and stopped to examine whatever moss-covered stone, distant sheep, or spider’s web had attracted their attention. I was constantly alternating between warning them to slow down and chivvying them to hurry up.
It was the first time I’d walked from the school to Drakeshaugh, a journey that Ginny made every day. I soon discovered that, although there wasn’t much of a gradient, pushing Annie up the hill towards the castle car park wasn’t easy. Ginny had a double buggy; she pushed both Al and Lily more than a mile from her home, and then went back again with James. It was little wonder that she was fit.
I wasn’t, and it took me much longer than I expected to reach the track that led to Drakeshaugh. We were still more than quarter of a mile from James’ home, but at least we were safely off the road. While I opened the gate, James led Henry up and over the wooden ladder stile next to it.
‘Me, me,’ Annie demanded, pointing at the boys, who by then were standing atop the style.
‘The gate’s open,’ I told her. ‘And I think those steps are rather big and steep for a little girl.’ I thought that they were a little steep for the boys, too, but they’d already reached the top, so there was no point in saying anything.
‘Not,’ she argued. By then it was too late. I’d pushed her through the gate and allowed it to swing closed. The boys clambered down and joined us on the track, but she continued to complain.
‘It’s not far now, Annie,’ I assured her. ‘We’re nearly at Drakeshaugh. Soon we’ll see Al and Lily.’
The first section of the track was as steep as the road, but getting the laden buggy up the loose gravel required even more effort. Fortunately, I hadn’t even got a hundred yards from the gate when James yelled, ‘Moomee!’ and began waving wildly.
Ginny hadn’t completely crested the ridge in the road. All I could see was her head and shoulders, although it was obvious from her posture that she was holding both Al and Lily by the hand. As Henry and James ran up to meet them, Ginny released her two youngest. Annie saw them and increased her protests.
‘Out, out, out!’ she demanded, tugging at her straps.
I put the brakes on the buggy, released her, and watched as she scampered up the track after the boys, shouting, ‘Wait for me!’ To my surprise, they did.
My load lightened considerably, I followed them up the track. Ginny had slowed. When the kids met, she was several yards behind them. I stared over the heads of the children, across the space dividing me from my friend. She was silent and unsmiling. As I stared into her careworn face, I knew that, despite the lack of any news reports, Harry’s initial message had been accurate.
‘There’s apple juice waiting for you, and fruitcake.’ The flatness in her voice I’d discerned over the phone was patently obvious when Ginny called out to the kids. ‘It’s on the floor in the living room. An indoor picnic.’
Squealing happily, they all trotted off up the track. Ginny managed a feeble smile and a quiet hello to my two when they passed her. Five happily shouting and squealing voices faded into the distance ahead of us, but as I closed on Ginny, her red-rimmed eyes told a different story.
Releasing the buggy, I stepped forwards and opened my arms. ‘I’m a great believer in hugs,’ I told her. ‘I even gave Harry one, this morning.’
‘He accepted it?’ she asked.
‘He doesn’t often do that,’ she said anxiously. ‘He must’ve needed it.’ Her fleeting smile showed enormous concern. I suspected that most of it was for her husband. She stepped into my embrace.
‘Terrible news,’ I observed.
Ginny squeezed me tightly. ‘Polly,’ she said. My heart skipped a beat. ‘She survived the battle… Eleven years… The Aurors–Harry’s office–haven’t lost anyone since May of ninety-eight.’ Releasing me, she looked up into my face. ‘Sorry,’ she added, wiping a tear from her eye. ‘I’ve been with the kids all day. It’s been hard.’
‘I know,’ I admitted. ‘You should’ve called me, Ginny. I’ve been worried, too. How are the others? Someone–Martha–said that there were four people involved. Polly, Dennis, Trudi, and a trainee called Cattermole. It’s wrong of me, I know, but I’ve been fretting most of the day, praying that it wasn’t Dennis. But more importantly, how are you, and how’s Harry? He looked desperate this morning when he got the call.’
Ginny hugged me again. ‘Thanks for asking. Harry’s not doing too well. He’s taking it badly, blaming himself; he always does.’ She shook her head in despair.
‘He cares, Ginny,’ I said. ‘That’s obvious. And so do you! The world’s always rough for people who care. What can I do to help?’
‘Let’s go and have a cuppa,’ Ginny said. ‘We can discuss it indoors. Our kids are getting away from us.’ She motioned up the track to the gate to her home. The children were very close to it.
‘Okay.’ Grabbing Annie’s buggy, I struggled to keep up with her.
‘Polly… shielded… the others,’ Ginny told me as we hurried after the kids. ‘Dennis and Ellie Cattermole are fine, Trudi has a few broken bones, but nothing serious.’
‘Broken bones are serious enough,’ I observed.
‘I didn’t know what you’d overheard, Jacqui,’ Ginny told me. ‘Martha–she’s Harry’s personal assistant–called me this morning to tell me what was going on, but by then they had rescued the survivors. I haven’t managed to talk to Harry yet. No one, not even Martha, thought to let me know that the call to Harry had been overheard. They’re all under a lot of pressure. If I’d known you were worried...’
‘Harry’s got a lot more to think about than his daft old nosey neighbour,’ I assured her. ‘But everyone at the gates heard the alarm go off, Ginny; code black, emergency port key! It was obviously some sort of code. Then Harry called Martha. She told him that… that someone had died, but at the time they didn’t know who.’
Ginny placed a comforting hand on my arm. ‘And you’ve been worried all day that it might be Dennis.’
‘I didn’t want it to be anyone!’ Although I tried to protest, I felt it necessary to make a full confession. ‘But, mostly, I didn’t want it to be Dennis. I’ve been worried all day, for Lesley’s sake. They seemed such a lovely couple, and she’s very pregnant, and it…’ I floundered for words. ‘I don’t mean that Polly is…’
‘Losing anyone is terrible,’ Ginny told me understandingly as we walked through the gates and into the gravel yard of Drakeshaugh. ‘But an expectant father like Dennis would have been even worse, and I honestly believe that Polly would agree.’
Ahead of us, James managed to open the door and the kids piled into Ginny’s home. ‘Wipe your feet!’ I bellowed.
‘Today, I don’t care about dirty floors,’ Ginny told me quietly. ‘Could you go and keep an eye on the kids, please. I’ll make a pot of tea, and then I’m going to call Harry.’
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