|SIYE Time:15:29 on 17th December 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: 190136; Chapter Total: 2760
Awards: View Trophy Room
Ginny didn’t return to the living room for quite some time. I was getting more and more anxious when, almost half-an-hour after I’d followed the kids into Drakeshaugh, she finally scampered up the stairs with a laden tea tray. She was moving a lot quicker than I’d have dared with such a load.
Her arrival, and her much more relaxed demeanour, banished the paranoid imaginings swirling around my mind. She hadn’t broken down, or been weeping alone in the kitchen. Whatever had been said in her conversation with her husband, it had certainly calmed her down. She remained subdued by the tragedy, of course, but the anxiety she’d shown when we’d met on the track had almost vanished.
The kids had long since finished their juice and fruit cake. They were all crawling about on the floor, playing with the wooden train set. Henry and James were also trying to recite “We’re going on a Bear Hunt” to their siblings. As the boys were constantly interrupting, correcting, and sidetracking each other, the story wasn’t flowing very well.
When they began their rambling recitation, I asked them about the story. They told me that “Miss” had read it to them that afternoon, and they’d been encouraged to join in. Their entertaining, if rambling, attempt at storytelling finally petered out a few minutes before Ginny arrived. She took a long look at the happily playing kids before placing the tea tray on the low table and giving me a grateful smile. They were deeply engrossed in the serious business of building a train track. As they played, their discussions continued to flip-flop bewilderingly between what happened at school and which direction the track should take.
‘I’ve been speaking to Harry,’ Ginny told me brightly. ‘He’d told Martha–his PA–that he was so busy that he wasn’t prepared to take calls from anyone, not even me.’ Her eyes flashed fire, and I knew he’d be in trouble. ‘But she and I have an arrangement; she ignored her orders and put me through anyway. He was intending to pull an all-nighter, but I told him that he’s coming home.’
‘Good,’ I said. ‘He needs to switch off, to unwind.’
‘Exactly!’ she nodded vigorously. ‘Sometimes he’s his own worst enemy. After all, he should know by now that he often gets his best ideas when he’s rested.’ She shook her head despairingly. ‘Tea?’
‘Please,’ I said.
‘Yes, please,’ James added as she poured the tea.
‘And me,’ Henry added, obviously not wanting to be left out.
‘An’ me, pease,’ Annie requested.
‘I’ll get more cups,’ Ginny said.
‘I’m going to set off early tomorrow, so we’ll be breakfasting with you,’ I told Mike. ‘I’m going to drop Annie off at Drakeshaugh, collect James, and then walk down to the school with him and Henry.’
‘You really are a star,’ he replied, smiling. ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
‘Not tomorrow,’ I said, but Ginny wants to keep Saturday as normal as possible for the kids…’ I hesitated, waiting for my husband to make the leap.
‘Harry’s going to be at work again, isn’t he?’ Mike observed. ‘We’ve already managed the swimming trip without him once, we can easily do it again.’ Leaning back on the sofa, deep in thought, he shuffled sideways so he could easily see my face.
‘You know, Jacqui, before we moved out here we spent ages discussing whether it was the right thing to do,’ he reminded me. ‘We talked about how isolated we’d be, and the problems we were likely to face and–after a lot of chat–we decided we’d manage. But we had two cars, even then, because we need them! Harry and Ginny have moved up here despite the fact that Ginny hasn’t even passed her driving test! She’s not so much isolated at Drakeshaugh as trapped there. I wonder if they really thought about the implications of their move? I hope that the remoteness of the place doesn’t get to her.’
‘Do you think it might?’ I asked anxiously.
‘Dunno,’ he admitted.
I watched as my husband ponderously gathered his thoughts and tried to make sense of them. ‘It probably won’t. She seems like a proper country girl, like you. She’s perfectly at home in the countryside with her kids and her chickens. But when Harry’s not around, she literally can’t go anywhere, at least not without help from friendly neighbours. There aren’t even any buses up here! I’m just…’ Mike paused. ‘While I was bathing the kids, Henry told me that James was his “bestest friend inna world”. I think I’m just a little worried about what would happen if they decided that they couldn’t stick it, living way up here, and left. It’s a helluva change from where they were living, in London.’
I was about to interrupt, but Mike waved me into silence. ‘I know, I know!’ he said with a smile. ‘We can’t wrap our kids up in cotton wool. Making, and losing, friends is a fact of life. But let’s be honest, Jacqui, there are no other boys Henry’s age in the school, and none of the older boys are anywhere near as close to him, physically or in terms of friendship, as James is. Their friendship is doing them both good.’ He sighed. ‘I’m probably worrying about nothing, sorry.’
‘I’d hardly call our son’s happiness “nothing”!’ I leant over and gave him a kiss.
‘There’s nothing we can do about it,’ he admitted. ‘And, anyway, they could fall out with each other tomorrow.’
‘Unlikely,’ I said. He made a gesture of helplessness.
‘So, what was this battle Ginny mentioned, the one poor old Polly survived?’ He asked. When he started talking, he was still grinning from my kiss, but by the time he reached the question, his eyes had a faraway, melancholic look. I knew he was remembering our brief encounter with the woman. ‘Any idea?’
Mike often picked up on things I’d missed, but I couldn’t see the point of his question.
‘I didn’t ask,’ I admitted. ‘When I arrived at Drakeshaugh, after I’d collected James and Henry, she was… To be honest, Mike, I’ve never seen Ginny looking so down. All I did was listen, and try to cheer her up. Although it turned out that one phone call with Harry was all it took to do that! What would’ve been the point of asking her about some combat Polly survived?’ Leaning my head on his shoulder, I waited for him to put his arm around me before continuing.
‘Ginny probably doesn’t know much about it. I mean, she said something about “ninety-eight”, I think. It’s not as if she was there, is it? In nineteen-ninety-eight Ginny was probably–definitely–still at school! But she wasn’t making much sense. She mentioned eleven years ago, and a battle, and ninety-eight, but for all I know they might be three different things. They almost certainly are.’
‘True,’ Mike admitted. He sighed. ‘It’s weird to think that we met her a few weeks ago, and now…’ His voice tailed off.
‘And now you’ll never know where her hippogriff tattoo was.’
‘Jacques!’ He was shocked.
‘We only met her once, but it was enough to know that she’d be the first to laugh at that.’
He chuckled. ‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘I think she would.’
We sat in silence, and hugged each other.
The following morning, as I dropped both Henry and James off at school, I found myself once again under siege. Encircled by an impenetrable wall of mothers, whose barrage of questions battered relentlessly at my defences, I had no alternative but to tell them all I knew. One of Harry’s staff was dead. No, she hadn’t been shot. She’d been in a cellar, and it had collapsed. I had no idea if there had been an explosion, because investigations were ongoing. I had no idea why it hadn’t been on the news.
‘You don’t know much, do you?’ observed Amanda. With Mary silenced, it seemed to me that Amanda had decided to sharpen her own tongue.
I admitted that I didn’t. Curbing the more venomous reply that bubbled in my gut, I simply said, ‘Polly Protheroe is dead, Ginny’s upset, and Harry’s busy. I’m not prepared to bother them by asking for all the details.’
‘Polly Protheroe!’ Amanda jumped on my comment. ‘You know her name. Was she one of the women at Harry’s party? Was she that short-haired one, the woman with the weird hippy husband?’
I shook my head. ‘Polly wasn’t at the party.’
‘You can’t be sure,’ opined Amanda dismissively. ‘I’m sure you didn’t meet everyone there.’
‘I can, because I met her weeks before the party,’ I replied. I regretted the words the moment they left my mouth.
Amanda immediately began to press me for more details. Was she young or old? Did she look like a secret agent? Under this onslaught, it was an easy decision for me to decide not to share my impressions of the eccentric Goth. Doing so would merely lead to more questions, and I knew I’d be unable to answer any of them. All I said was that it was a very brief encounter, she looked to be about forty, and she’d seemed nice.
As I tried to make my escape from the questioners, Amanda played her final card. ‘I thought I’d call on Ginny to let her know that we’re all thinking of her. Do you want a lift?’
‘You don’t need to go,’ I said. ‘I can tell her for you.’
‘I’d much rather do it myself,’ she told me, somehow managing to imply that she didn’t trust me to pass on the message. ‘My car’s this way; come on.’
It was an order, not a request. Even so, I ignored it.
‘No, thanks, Amanda. The walk will do me good.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. I have the car here, and you’ve left yours at Drakeshaugh.’
‘I want to walk,’ I said stubbornly. ‘And Ginny won’t be expecting you.’ I tried to imbue the statement with as much protest as I could, but it was a pathetic reason.
It was obvious that Amanda wasn’t going to take my hint. The tiniest shake of her head was enough to show that I’d failed utterly. ‘You can walk if you want,’ she told me. ‘When I get there, I’ll ask her to pop the kettle on, shall I?’
‘It will be on, anyway,’ I felt the need to defend my friend from what seemed to me to be another veiled insult. ‘Ginny knows how long it will take me to walk back.’
Shaking her head again, Amanda climbed into her car and set off up the road. I watched her leave, and wondered whether to phone Ginny and warn her. It was then that I realised I’d left my bag, and with it my phone, in my car.
I was only about halfway up the road to the Drakeshaugh track when Amanda sped past me, heading in the opposite direction. I registered a worried expression on her face and wondered what had happened. It seemed unlikely that she’d had enough time to get to the Potter’s home. What could have made her change her mind?
Upon my arrival at Drakeshaugh, I was proved correct. The kettle was coming to the boil. The second thing I did–after first fussing over Annie, Al, and Lily, who were playing with the wooden alphabet bricks on the kitchen floor–was to tell Ginny what had happened at the school gates. She was rather amused.
‘Coffee or tea?’ she asked. A large cafetiere was standing ready on the bench; it was obvious that Ginny was going to have a coffee.
‘Coffee’s fine,’ I told her.
‘How close do you think she got?’ Ginny asked, as she poured the water over the grounds.
Watching Ginny work, I gave it some thought. ‘I’m not sure,’ I replied. ‘I don’t think she can have gone any farther than the gate onto the track. It wasn’t locked, was it? I don’t know because I used the stile.’
‘No,’ Ginny assured me. ‘It’s never locked. And Amanda looked worried?’
‘That’s what I thought, yes,’ I confirmed, trying to read Ginny’s face. I was fairly sure that she was happy about the fact that Amanda hadn’t arrived unannounced, but beneath that there appeared to be another, more calculated, reaction.
‘You’re not worried about visiting me, are you, Jacqui?’ Ginny asked, pressing down on the plunger.
‘What a strange question,’ I said. ‘Of course not. I’m sure that no one would be worried about calling in on you, Ginny,’ I added reassuringly. I worried that the strain was getting to my friend; it appeared she was worried about becoming a social outcast.
‘You have no idea how special you are, Jacqui,’ she told me with a sly smile. ‘Milk, cream, or black?’ She lifted the coffee pot.
‘Milk, please. Semi-skimmed, if you have it. I’m nothing special,’ I protested. ‘I’m really very ordinary, even boring.’
She put down the cafetiere without pouring, walked over, and hugged me. ‘Think what you like, Jacqui. But believe me, you’re not ordinary.’
‘Mike tells me I’m extraordinary,’ I admitted. ‘But I think he’s probably teasing. After all, the way he tends to use it, that word could mean anything!’
‘He’s a good man. I’m certain he means it,’ Ginny assured me. Returning to the kitchen table, she poured our coffees.
I shook my head. ‘I doubt it. He can be such an idiot, and besides, he’s my husband; he’s supposed to say things like that.’ I told her.
‘Being a good man and an idiot aren’t mutually exclusive, you know,’ Ginny told me with a grin. ‘You have met my brothers, haven’t you?’
I laughed and nodded.
‘And what’s my excuse?’ she asked. ‘How many times do you need to hear a compliment before you take it?’
‘I… um… thanks,’ I said, not wanting to prolong my embarrassment.
‘You really aren’t good at taking praise,’ she laughed. ‘You’re a lot like Harry in that respect.’
‘And you’re a lot happier today than you were yesterday,’ I observed.
‘Because Harry was a lot happier when he came home last night,’ she admitted. ‘I think we can expect an arrest soon.’
This wasn’t the first time she’d thought the case was cracked, and she’d been wrong before. I had to repress a sudden surge of anxiety, so my nod of agreement was rather perfunctory. It didn’t matter; she was feeling upbeat, and my unspoken and inexplicable doubts passed her by. I had a vague feeling that there would be more trouble ahead, but I had no idea why.
‘Mike’s agreed that we can get you and the kids to the pool tomorrow,’ I told her. ‘Any other plans for blackberry week, next week?’
‘Sorry,’ I said, rather embarrassed. ‘It’s a bit old-fashioned of me, but that’s what Mam always called the October half-term break. Your blackberries will be ripe by then–I noticed a lot of fat and juicy looking ones on the side of the track when I walked up here. I even tried a few as I passed.’ I showed her my purple stained fingers as proof. ‘They’re very sweet. Are you going to pick them? It’ll give the kids something to do.’
‘Half-term?’ Ginny asked.
‘Next week.’ I nodded, looked into Ginny’s face, and realised that she didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. ‘A letter with the term dates came home with Henry the first week of term,’ I explained. ‘Half-term is next week. The boys aren’t at school. All of the holidays have been on my calendar since I got the list. Didn’t you get the letter?’
I watched as realisation struck. ‘I did. I put the dates on my calendar, but I’ve had other things on my mind,’ she admitted.
‘True,’ I agreed. ‘So, you’ve no plans? It shouldn’t be too difficult to keep the kids occupied. There’ll be stuff on at the sports centre if we get desperate, of course. My sister and I used to spend at least one day with Mam picking blackberries, and another helping–in retrospect I should probably say hindering–her make bramble jelly.’ I smiled at the memory.
‘That sounds like a good idea,’ Ginny said. ‘We’re busy on Sunday, but if the kids are off all week, we could do some picking on Monday.’
‘I wasn’t trying to invite myself,’ I protested.
Ginny waved me into silence. ‘Do you really think that James and Henry will be able to last a week without seeing each other?’ She looked at me in astonishment, and I saw James’ protesting expression on her face. ‘A whole week? But Moomee, that’s like… forever!’
I had to laugh. She’d exaggerated his rather eccentric pronunciation of mummy, but otherwise her impersonation of James was spot-on. ‘Great, I’ll…’
‘Ginny,’ Harry’s voice echoed from her pocket. She pulled out her phone and stared down at it.
‘Hi, Harry,’ she said. ‘Jacqui’s here, hang on a second.’ She looked at me. ‘Okay if I take this in the study?’
‘Fine,’ I said.
She scurried from the kitchen and across the small hall. As she opened the door into the room with the big old desk with the inkwell and quill, I got the briefest of glimpses into it. I saw just enough to be certain I hadn’t been mistaken about the quill, then the door closed and silence fell.
I turned my attention to the chattering kids.
‘Geen,’ Lily told me proudly, holding up a green-painted wooden block.
‘Brillian’ are peas play green,’ Al told me, proudly displaying his knowledge. ‘Rubbish cannon zorange.’
‘Sorry, Al. I didn’t quite hear that,’ I admitted, unable to figure out what he was trying to tell me.
‘Berloo,’ Annie interjected, holding up a blue block. It was obvious that she didn’t want to be left out of the conversation.
‘Yes, blue,’ I agreed. ‘Can you say it properly, Annie?’
‘Berloo,’ she nodded.
‘Red and yellow and pink and green. Purple and orange and blue,’ I sang. Annie immediately joined in. Surprisingly, Ginny’s two didn’t appear to know the words.
I knelt down on the hard stone floor and started again. This time I sang the song slower, and encouraged Al and Lily to sing along.
‘Red.’ As we started the song, Annie found a red brick and placed it in front of her. Al and Lily followed suit. It became a contest, but it was a very uneven one. Annie had the huge advantage of being word perfect with the song; she was collecting bricks even before the Potter kids knew which colour to look for.
We went through the song twice, and the second time I encouraged the kids to touch a brick of the correct colour. When we finished, there was a round of applause from behind me.
‘That was lovely,’ Ginny said. ‘Well done children, and well done, Jacqui.’
‘Again,’ Annie demanded. ‘Red an…’
Al, Lily, and I joined in.
‘That’s enough now, Annie,’ I said when we finished. ‘Perhaps we can sing again, later. But now I’d like to finish my coffee.’
‘Kay,’ she nodded.
I hauled myself to my feet. ‘Everything okay, Ginny?’ I asked.
‘I think so,’ Ginny told me. ‘They’ll be releasing a name and photograph of the man they’re looking for later today, and Harry’s confident that they finally have the right man. But that’s not why he phoned. He wanted to let me know that Polly named him as her executor. She has no family, so she chose her boss.’
‘He must’ve known,’ I said. ‘He’d have had to sign something, wouldn’t he?’
‘Yes, but she did it years ago, and he’d forgotten. He’s starting to organise the funeral according to Polly’s very–particular–instructions.’ She chose the word carefully.
‘Particular?’ I asked.
‘She’d planned her own funeral down to the last detail. Music, everything!’ Ginny said. ‘She’s even named the four people she wants as her pallbearers.’
‘Harry was always going to attend,’ I said thoughtfully, more to myself than to Ginny.
Although I’d known them for less than two months, I knew Harry well enough to be certain of that fact. Ginny nodded, and something in the way she did so made me certain she’d be at her husband’s side.
‘We can look after the kids,’ I offered. ‘You can’t always drag your mum up here from Devon; it’s such a long journey. If we take care of them it’s one thing less for you, and Harry, to worry about–and to organise.’
‘That’s really good of you,’ said Ginny. ‘Mum and Dad are in France for a well-deserved holiday. They’re staying with Monsieur and Madame Delacour, Fleur’s parents, for a couple of weeks. Although it’ll be a miracle if Mum can cope with Apolline–Fleur’s mother–for that long.’ She laughed. ‘At least we won’t have to worry about getting along with the in-laws for a long time.’ She paused, and returned to the original topic. ‘I’ll talk to Harry about the funeral arrangements tonight. But we already owe you such a lot. The kids so look forward to the trips to the pool.’
‘You don’t owe us anything,’ I assured her.
‘Twain,’ Annie demanded. We took the kids up to the living room.
I had no plans, so spent the entire day with Ginny and the kids. We played games and sang, and made ginger biscuits together. By half-past two we were back in the Potter’s barn-sized living room with some of the still-warm biscuits, and I was teaching the kids to sing “The Keel Row”.
I had almost forgotten about Harry’s case. The tragedy of the outside world was such a long way from the peaceful and happy family life going on at Drakeshaugh. The kids were blissfully unaware of how horrible the outside world could be. It was then that Harry rang again. When Ginny returned, she had a lot to tell me. After she’d done so, we planned how we’d tell the other mums.
We were surrounded the moment we approached the school.
‘There’s going to be something on your news programmes tonight,’ Ginny began.
‘Our news programmes?’ Angela asked.
‘Ginny doesn’t own a television,’ I explained. It seemed that fact was almost bigger news than what we intended to tell them. Ginny, who’d been uncharacteristically silent after Angela’s interruption, gave me a grateful glance and indicated that I should tell them the news.
‘Harry’s people have identified the… the man they want to question about the killings,’ I began.
‘They haven’t caught him?’ Angela asked.
‘He’s called Pelias Hume.’ I refused to be diverted.
‘Pelias? What sort of a name is that?’ one of the other mothers asked.
‘Also known as,’ I paused, and tried to remember the other names Ginny had told me.
‘Pelias Fawley and Peter Wolfman,’ said Ginny.
‘Peter Wolfman…’ That name was a rock in the river, rippling across several lips.
Ginny continued regardless. ‘His brother, Jason, rented the place in Sheffield where the police found that young couple. Jason is already under arrest.’
‘They ought to string him up,’ someone said. I bristled, but Ginny ignored that comment, too.
‘There was another man named a few weeks ago, a Mr Robards,’ I added. ‘He’d been kidnapped, what we heard yesterday morning was the aftermath of a dawn raid, where Mr Robards was rescued by Harry’s team.’
There was an avalanche of questions, and Ginny moved to the fore. ‘I can’t say any more,’ she said. ‘You might find out more on the news programmes, but I don’t know. I don’t know what Harry will be allowed to say, and I can’t tell you anything else, because that’s all he’s told us.’
Standing side by side, Ginny and I stonewalled all other questions, simply repeating ourselves until the kids left school. The moment our interrogators were, like us, forced to attend to more mundane matters, we made our escape.
‘Thanks,’ Ginny said as we walked back to Drakeshaugh with the kids.
‘No problem,’ I assured her.
The early evening news led on the case, and Mike settled down at my side to watch it with me. The report was accompanied by an unflattering photograph of Pelias Hume. He was a gaunt and dark-eyed man in his late twenties or early thirties. Unlike the earlier sensational stories about wolf bites, the reporter explained that the injuries to the victims had been re-examined and found to be consistent with a frenzied knife attack. The police spokesperson was someone whose name Ginny had mentioned, Inspector Roberta Wood. The Inspector gave the reporter Hume’s aliases and described him as severely mentally disturbed. The reporter concluded with a warning to the public not to approach him, but to contact the police immediately. Hume was, we were told, extremely dangerous and probably armed with a knife.
‘He’s killed four people seemingly at random,’ Mike observed. ‘It’s a bloody good thing he can’t get his hands on anything more dangerous than a knife.’
‘Bloody good,’ Annie agreed from behind us.
Mike laughed, so I slapped his arm and scolded him.
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