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SIYE Time:14:22 on 19th October 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: 88
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: 10387; Chapter Total: 463
Awards: View Trophy Room






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Suffering

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.

‘Yeah, thanks.’

‘Grand, so, are we going to conquer Everest or not?’ He pointed at the summit, which was just visible ahead of us.

‘Yup.’

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.

‘Just...’

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.’
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