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SIYE Time:8:07 on 16th December 2017


James and Me
By Northumbrian

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Category: Post-Hogwarts, Post-DH/PM
Characters:All
Genres: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama, General, Humor, Romance
Warnings: Extreme Language
Rating: R
Reviews: 91
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.
Hitcount: Story Total: 11940; Chapter Total: 656
Awards: View Trophy Room






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Friendship

‘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.
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