|SIYE Time:20:15 on 23rd March 2018|
Category: Post-Hogwarts, Post-DH/PM
Genres: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama, General, Humor, Romance
Warnings: Extreme Language
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: 15901; Chapter Total: 706
Awards: View Trophy Room
The ride back from Mam Tor was exhilarating, James barely slowed for the bends. As we raced homewards, our knees almost touched the tarmac on the tightest turns.
I knew that my journey into the future had started; the combination of fresh air and James had cleared my mind. The excitement of the ride brought with it freedom from my recent past.
As we hurtled along, inches above the road, my mind was a feather of ecstasy whirling and swirling through the air. Blown along by the winds of happiness, I was unrestricted, unbound; I could float into a future where no one’s wishes would restrict my freedom. By the time we roared back into the outskirts of Sheffield, I had my arms resting lightly on James’ ribs, and I was singing.
‘What’s Chatteris if you’re not there? What’s Chatteris if you’re not there? I may as well be in Ely or St Ives…’ I concluded as we entered the outskirts of the city.
‘Is that supposed to be a love song?’ James asked.
‘I’m not serenading you,’ I teased. ‘I’m singing because I’m happy.’
‘Good!’ he told me approvingly. ‘You know some strange songs, Annie. That’s another one I’ve never heard before.’
‘It was one of Dad’s favourites, so it’s probably at least as old as me,’ I said. ‘It’s one of several he played all the time, although usually only when Mum was out. She wasn’t keen, but I seem to have absorbed a lot of them.’
‘You’ve got a good voice,’ he said admiringly. I slid my arms up his chest and hugged him. For good measure, I squeezed his buttocks between my thighs.
‘Thanks, Jamie. Great day,’ I said.
‘Despite the foot?’ he asked.
I had to think before I answered. The floating feather of my mind shot an enquiry to my foot and, after some time, was told that there wasn’t even a twinge of pain. ‘Foot’s forgotten,’ I assured him.
We hit traffic and slowed down to a crawl. As the bike slowed, the winds of happiness seemed to drop, and my mind began to prepare me for my return to earth.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Are you sure we aren’t imposing on Vicki?’
‘She’ll be fine, she never complains about cooking; she rarely complains about anything,’ I assured him. Not wanting to admit that I’d forgotten about shopping for food, I directed James to the shops on Fulwood Road.
There was nowhere to park the Tiger, so I suggested that James stay outside while I dashed into Morrison’s. He agreed, but he wouldn’t let me go until he’d forced some cash on me. As I entered the store, I took the opportunity to check my phone and found another text from Vicki: Ring me when you get the chance. I hit the call button while picking up a basket. Vicki answered almost immediately.
‘Where are you?’ she asked.
‘Fulwood Road, we won’t be long,’ I said. ‘Is there something wrong?’
‘No, nothing.’ She sounded very hesitant, so I knew she wasn’t telling me everything.
‘Simon?’ I asked.
‘No, nothing like that,’ she assured me. ‘It’s just… well… I said lamb, but it’s expensive, and besides not everyone likes lamb. Chicken will do, or fish.’
‘I’m pretty sure that James will eat lamb–he didn’t complain when I mentioned it,’ I said. ‘Don’t be such a worrier.’ While I was talking, I picked up a net of half-a-dozen onions and dropped them into the basket.
‘Sorry, that’s all I wanted, really. I shouldn’t have bothered you. You’ll be here in ten minutes or so?’
‘Maybe quarter-of-an-hour, depending on the queue at the tills.’
‘Great, thanks for letting me know. I’ll put the rice in to soak. Shall I put the kettle on?’
‘Not until we arrive. You’re a wonder, Vicki,’ I told her. ‘See you soon.’
For the final leg of our journey, I held my bag of groceries in one hand and held onto James with the other. Despite being on the bike, reality was returning. After hurtling through the countryside, creeping slowly through the busy streets was a definite return to the ordinary.
When we turned into the street where I lived, I realised the reason for Vicki’s message. Corinne, Alex, and George were sitting on the wall outside my flat. It appeared, from the way they were greeting each other, that they’d just arrived.
‘You’ve met Corinne–the others are Alex and George.’ I told James.
‘Should I be worried?’ James asked as he let go of the throttle. ‘George looks pretty tough.’
I laughed. George is a lovely guy, but only Vicki is smaller than he is, and the only physically impressive thing about him is his beard. As James throttled back and rolled the bike to a halt, I stood up on the footpegs and waved to my friends. We hadn’t quite stopped, and George looked terrified by my action.
Trusting James to keep the bike stable, I stepped off the bike just before he stopped. As he put his feet down and switched off the engine, I unclipped my helmet and handed it to him. He took it without a word. Three steps took me to my former flatmates.
‘How dost thou, sweet comrades?’ I asked, taking a bow.
My friends smiled. As they chorused their hellos in suitably Shakespearean terms, I heard the bike-stand click into place behind me. The three pairs of eyes in front of me moved away from my face to gaze at a point over my shoulder, doubtless waiting for James to remove his helmet and reveal himself. Alex’s eyes widened, while George frowned.
‘Do I bow too?’ James asked as he stepped alongside me.
‘Of course not,’ I told him. ‘You have to curtsey.’
He did, and my friends applauded.
‘This is Alex and George; you’ve already met Corinne,’ I gestured flamboyantly as I performed the introductions. Corinne and Alex were smiling, but George still looked a little wary. ‘This is my friend, James Sirius Potter, motorcyclist, amateur historian, ne’er-do-well, smart-arse, and–in his early years–pirate captain, astronaut, wizard, explorer, and secret agent.’
‘In my early years?’ James asked me, a wicked gleam in his eyes. ‘What makes you think I’ve stopped? Hello George. Hello again, Corinne. Hello Alex.’ He held out a hand to each of them in turn. George’s rather reluctantly proffered hand, he shook, but when he took Corinne’s, he lifted it to his lips and kissed it.
‘Good now, good sir!’ Corinne exclaimed. Feigning a swoon, she fanned her face with her unkissed hand.
When he took Alex’s hand and lifted it, she calmly accepted the kiss.
‘So,’ I said, folding my arms and staring at them. ‘Vicki blabbed, did she?’
‘Don’t blame her, Anna,’ Corinne begged. ‘I ran into her in the library a couple of hours ago and asked how you were. She said that you and James had gone off on a motorbike, so I asked her to text me the minute you got back. She did better than that. We wanted to make sure you arrived home safely.’
‘A likely story,’ I said, giving James a sideways glance.
‘Nothing to do with him,’ Corinne protested.
‘She’s totally lying, of course. These are Corrine’s texts,’ George told me. Lifting his phone, he read, ‘Ran into Vicki in the IC–Anna’s gone out with James, on a motorbike! She’s asked Vicki to cook for them. Made Vicki promise to let me know when they get back. Interested in seeing what he looks like? Then, the minutes ago, she sent this one: they’ll be back in ten minutes.’
Corrine gave an unrepentant shrug.
‘Phil’s not here because he’s working,’ Alex said.
‘What about Brad?’ James asked.
‘Pub, watching the footie,’ I guessed. ‘He’s a Toffee man.’
James looked at me as if I were mad.
‘The Toffees–Everton,’ I told him.
‘Aren’t you more important than a football match?’ James asked me.
‘I bloody hope not,’ Corinne told him, ‘because I’m not.’ She turned to me. ‘So?’ She glanced pointedly at James as she asked the question.
‘So what?’ I asked.
‘Just friends, honest, that’s what you told me and Brad the other day,’ said Corinne. ‘And then you go off on a motorbike with him.’
‘I’ve gone off in a car with you lot loads of times,’ I reminded her. ‘What’s the difference?’
‘Intention,’ Alex said promptly. ‘What are your intentions, Anna? Your friends want to know.’
‘Ask James what his intentions are. Find out all his secrets, and then tell me,’ I told her. Holding up the plastic bag, I used it to make my escape. ‘I’m going to deliver these to Vicki.’ I dashed into the flat, leaving James to the mercy of my friends.
I was happy when I ran up the stairs, but when I entered the kitchen, Vicki’s worried expression blew the last vestiges of the elation of the ride from me. Her mortar, full of herbs and spices, was on the bench alongside her. The crimson and amber dust on the pestle she held in her hand showed she’d already started working on the meal.
‘Sorry,’ she began.
Her apprehension shone out from her face like a beacon. She was a rabbit in the headlights, expecting me to be angry, to be moody, simply because she’d told Corinne where I was. I opened my mouth to tease her, but James words as we approached the shops echoed in my mind. ‘Are you sure we aren’t imposing on Vicki?’ They were followed by a realisation. Corinne had seen Vicki in the library; she’d been working, and had come home just to make us a meal.
As I stood, mouth open, my actions over the past few months flooded my mind. I remembered taking advantage of my flatmate’s good nature many times. Sometimes–but not often–it was at Simon’s bidding. The more I thought, the more the number increased. My reply to James’ question had been wrong. We were imposing on Vicki; I’d been imposing on her for months.
‘I can be a bossy bitch, at times, can’t I?’ I asked her regretfully. Vicki’s surprise and relief was palpable, and that only made me feel worse. ‘There’s no need to say sorry, Vicki, I should be the one apologising. I’m sorry. I simply expect you to do stuff for me, and I shouldn’t.’
‘It’s okay,’ Vicki told me awkwardly. ‘You don’t mean to do it. You’re just... I mean…’
‘I’m mean,’ I admitted. Her protests about the way I’d turned her words around were lost, because I pulled her into a hug. I’m almost a head taller than she is, so there wasn’t much she could do about it. ‘I am sorry, Vicki. You were at the library, working, weren’t you?’
‘It’s okay,’ she began, returning the hug.
‘No, it isn’t,’ I told her. ‘You’re way too nice to me. You’re way too nice to everyone. It’s time you got something in return; it’s time I treated you. I’ll make us Sunday dinner tomorrow. Roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, the works. It’ll be my treat.’
‘That would be nice,’ she said. ‘But you…’
She got no further because the Tiger roared into life. Worried that James was fleeing from my friends, I released her. We both dashed across to the kitchen window. Alex was sitting astride James’ bike, turning the throttle. James was frantically indicating that she should ease off. As she did, James looked up and saw me peering from the window.
‘Me,’ he mouthed, ‘And Alex,’ he pointed at her. ‘Bike,’ he pointed again, this time at the Tiger whose roar had become a purr. ‘Around the block.’ He drew a square in the air with his finger. ‘See you soon, okay?’ He gave me a hopeful thumbs-up.
‘What was all that about?’ Vicki asked worriedly. ‘Is he going off with Alex?’
I’d thought it was obvious, but Vicki seemed to have missed something. As I gave James the thumbs-up, I turned to Vicki. ‘He’s taking Alex once around the block on the bike,’ I told her. ‘You know what she’s like, she probably asked him.’
‘Hmm.’ Vicki looked worried.
Watching James hand Alex my helmet, I suffered a sudden surge of jealousy. The logical part of my brain tried to remind me that it wasn’t actually my helmet; it was James’ spare. That didn’t console me. I watched as Alex clumsily clambered onto the pillion seat.
‘She doesn’t even know how to get on a bike properly,’ I told Vicki as James sat down–between her legs, damn it. He’s far from the first man she’s wrapped her legs around, the green-eyed monster told me. Fortunately, before the monster could whisper any more of its paranoia there were footsteps on our stairs.
‘He won’t talk. Refused to say anything unless we had a go on the bike,’ Corinne told me. ‘I think he thought we’d say no. George is next.’
‘Yeah!’ From his tone, it sounded to me like George had been bullied into it by Alex and Corinne.
‘Then me, and finally Vicki,’ Corinne added.
‘Me?’ Vicki’s exclamation could have shattered glass, and her head was shaking so rapidly it seemed to be in danger of falling off. ‘No, no!’
‘That’s the deal,’ Corinne said. ‘Don’t worry, Vicki; Anna’s James will look after you.’
‘Don’t worry?’ Vicki squeaked.
‘He’s not my James,’ I added.
‘Oh yes he is,’ Corinne told me. ‘I watched him watching you when we were in Ticino’s, and he’s even worse today. He’s a desperate little puppy craving your attention. Isn’t he, Georgie?’
George reluctantly grunted his agreement. ‘But he’s unemployed. He must be skint! How can he afford that bike? There’s something not right.’
‘You’re only jealous, George,’ said Corinne, winking at me.
George has always been very protective of us. It’s sweet, but a little annoying, particularly for Alex.
‘Not jealous, concerned!’ George grumbled. ‘Let’s face it, Simon was...’
‘A few days ago I’d have enjoyed listening to you vilifying Simon, George,’ I said. ‘But right now, I simply want to forget him, okay?’
‘How does she do it?’ Corinne asked Vicki. ‘I mean look at her! Her roots are showing, her hair needs a good wash, she’s dressed like a scruff, and she’s one of the rudest people I know! How the hell do you live with her, Vicki?’
‘She’s nice.’ Vicki’s attempt to interject was steamrollered back into silence.
‘Yet, despite this, she has more suitors than the Bennett sisters!’ Corinne was on a roll. ‘How the hell does she manage to get a steady stream of blokes following her around with their tongues hanging out? It’s not like she’s some supermodel.’
I could see Vicki blanching as Corrine continued to push my buttons.
‘She splits up with the richest bloke in our year, and less than a day later she scores with an eminently shaggable hunk. How old is he, by the way?’
‘Twenty-two,’ I said. ‘And does Brad know you think he’s shaggable?’
‘Those were Alex’s words, not mine,’ Corinne said. She gave me a wicked grin. ‘So, really, that doesn’t mean much, does it? You know what she’s like–shaggable is not a high bar for Alex. Who knows what part of James she’s hanging onto.’
‘How d’you know he’s twenty-two?’ Vicki asked in an attempt to divert the conversation away from Corinne’s attempts to bait me.
‘He’ll be twenty-three next month,’ I said, gratefully taking the escape route Vicki offered. ‘His birthday is–I know that he’s exactly four weeks older than Henry–I can’t remember the date.’
‘It’ll be the eighth of October,’ Vicki said.
‘Little Vicki,’ Corinne turned from me and pounced. ‘It’s always the quiet ones! How on earth do you know that? We all know you’re good at maths, but working that out so quickly means you know when Anna’s brother’s birthday is! How? Why? Does little Vicki fancy him?’
‘Um, Er,’ Vicki floundered, and looked at me for help.
I didn’t want to let her down, but it took me a moment, which Corinne used to chant, ‘Vicki fancies Anna’s brother, Vicki fancies Anna’s brother.’
Vicki didn’t help her situation by saying, ‘His name is Henry, and his birthday...’
‘Is it a lurve so twue, Vicki?’ Corinne teased. Vicki fell silent again. It was so easy for Corinne to talk over her. Fortunately, I had realised how Vicki knew.
‘Henry’s birthday is Guy Fawkes night,’ I said to Corinne. ‘I mention it every year. He always boasts that the whole country celebrates his birthday with fireworks. You might have forgotten, but Vicki didn’t, did you?’
‘No,’ Vicki told me gratefully.
‘Vicki pays attention, Corinne, that’s all there is to it.’ I stared hard at Corinne, trying to let her know that she was upsetting Vicki. It seemed to work.
‘Sorry, Vicki,’ she said. ‘Ginger James should be back any minute now, unless Alex has dragged him to her boudoir. Shall we all go outside and see?’
‘You go,’ I said. ‘I’m going grab a quick shower while I have the chance.’
‘Did I get to you, too?’ asked Corinne.
‘A bit,’ I admitted.
‘Sorry,’ Corinne seemed a little surprised. ‘I was only teasing. You and James must be more serious than I thought. What do you think, George? You’ve been uncharacteristically quiet.’
‘Too much oestrogen in the atmosphere,’ he said calmly. ‘No Brad, no Phil, I’m well and truly outnumbered.’
‘You count Phil as one of the blokes, do you?’ Corinne teased as she led them from the kitchen.
Vicki was hanging back, and I knew why.
‘If you’re worried about going on the bike, tell James, and tell him I said he has to be nice to you, or else!’
‘If you’re really worried, don’t do it, and don’t give in to the others,’ I said. ‘If I’m quick, I’ll be out before it’s your turn.’
‘Thanks, Anna,’ she said quietly.
‘Hoy! What’re you two plotting up there?’ Corinne bellowed.
‘Nowt,’ I yelled back as Vicki scampered off to join the others.
My shower was rapid, and rather cold; it takes a while for the water to heat up. As I scrubbed, I checked the sole of my foot. The skin was wrinkled where I’d burst the blister, but it was surprisingly pain free. I dried myself quickly, grabbing my clean clothes, and dressed. I was still towelling my hair dry when left the bathroom.
I had selected my clothes carefully. My first choice had been a long skirt, but I knew that if I went even slightly glamorous, Corinne would tease me unmercifully. After some consideration, I settled on my old–but freshly laundered–combat pants and the almost unworn “Singing Hinnies” t-shirt I’d bought at their gig.
The t-shirt was another reminder of why Simon was such an arse. He hated the Hinnies: ‘All those pipes and wailing and stupid accents and depressing songs.’ It had been made very clear to me that he wasn’t going to attend the gig. He didn’t want me to go, either, but I’d dug in my heels. It had resulted in our only big argument.
I was singing “Cushie Butterfield” and still towelling my hair when I heard the Tiger approaching once again. By the time I’d thrown the towel onto my bedroom floor and dashed downstairs, Corinne was removing her helmet and handing it to a terrified-looking Vicki.
‘You’ve changed,’ James observed, looking me up and down.
‘Nope, I’m still me! Hard luck,’ I told him. While he chuckled, I lowered my voice and spoke to Vicki. ‘There’s an intercom in the helmet. If you think James is going too fast, or you’re unhappy, just tell him; he’ll listen.’ I looked at him, making certain that he understood. His response was little more than the twitch of an eye, but it was enough to reassure me.
‘You don’t have to do this, if you don’t want,’ he told her.
‘Everyone else has,’ replied Vicki determinedly. I wanted to hug her, but instead I simply helped her fasten the helmet and advised her how best to get on the bike. Once she was settled, I took her hands and placed them just above James hips.
‘Best hold on, if you’re worried,’ I suggested. ‘And trust him; it’s all about trust. When he leans, the bike leans, and you lean too. Whatever you do, don’t fight the bike.’
‘Not like Alex,’ James muttered. He shuddered slightly.
I stepped back, and watched them move slowly down the road. ‘Where’d you go?’ I asked the others.
‘Down the hill to Penistone Road, along to Netherthorpe Road, up to the IC, and then back past the Arts Tower,’ Alex told me. As always, she pronounced Penistone as penis-tone rather than pen-is-tan.
‘You guided him that way just so you could say penis tone, didn’t you?’ I said.
‘Yup,’ she admitted.
‘And I bet she asked about the tone of his...’ Corinne began.
‘Please!’ George protested. ‘If Brad, Phil, and me started talking about women like that, we’d get it in the neck for being sexist. I’m beginning to have some sympathy for James. We’re men, not sex objects, you know!’
We all spoke at once.
‘There, there, George, I’ve never thought of you as a sex object,’ said Alex venomously. ‘Does that make you feel better?’
‘In the neck?’ asked Corinne. ‘That’s why your sex life is in the state it is, mate.’
‘Why would Phil be talking about women?’ I added. ‘And what do you mean “beginning to have sympathy”? Don’t you like him?’
‘Who will rid me of these troublesome women?’ George asked, staring into the sky.
‘You love us all, really,’ Corinne told him.
‘From the heart of your bottom,’ Alex added. She kissed his cheek; Corinne followed suit. I folded my arms.
‘Don’t you like him?’ I asked again.
George shrugged. ‘I don’t know whether I like him or not, Anna,’ he admitted. ‘I certainly won’t be going on the back of a motorbike again!’ He paused. ‘He seems nice enough, but then I thought Simon was okay!’ He shook his head. ‘At least, unlike Simon, he’s got a decent sense of humour.’ That was enough for me; I bent over and planted my lips on his beard.
‘So, what do you think?’ I asked my friends.
‘Definitely fuckable,’ Alex told me.
‘You say that about ninety-percent of blokes under thirty!’ Corinne told her before turning to me. ‘He’s a nice guy, Anna, but I’m with George, that was my first and last motorbike ride.’
‘Did you look down?’ George asked her.
‘Yeah!’ She sounded terrified. ‘The road is only inches below your feet; if there was an accident!’ She threw up her hands in horror.
‘You’re wrong,’ I told her. ‘But what about James?’
‘I already like him,’ Corinne told me. ‘Brad thought he was okay, too, but he may change his mind.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘I asked him which team he supported. He started to say something about Chudley, and then stopped. When I said I’d never heard of them, and asked what league they play in, he admitted that he doesn’t really follow football. So far as Brad’s concerned, not having a team is a serious crime.’
As Corinne spoke, an image of ten-year-old James wearing a bright orange knitted hat flashed into my mind.
‘Have you shagged him yet? And if not, why not?’ Alex asked.
‘Bloody hell, this is only the second time I’ve met him since I was thirteen, twelve–I mean, eleven.’ I stopped, puzzled by my inability to remember how old I’d been when I’d last seen him.
‘That’s plenty of time,’ she assured me. We were still arguing when the Tiger arrived back.
I watched as Vicki climbed off, staggering. I was about to round on James when she lifted off her helmet to reveal a smile so wide it could probably be seen from space.
‘That–was–brilliant,’ she said. ‘It’s so much not like being in a car. It’s… it’s…’
I put an arm around her shoulder. ‘It’s being in the elements rather than cocooned inside a warm and comfortable box,’ I suggested.
‘Yes,’ she nodded enthusiastically. ‘That’s exactly it!’
‘I’m just glad that you enjoyed it, Vicki,’ James said. ‘I could feel you relaxing, unlike the rest of them.’
I caught the briefest glimpse of apprehension on Alex’s face. James missed it.
‘So, the award for best pillion passenger goes to Vicki.’ He seemed to sense that I was about to protest. ‘After you, of course.’ He told me. ‘I wish I’d thought to give your little speech to the others. As for the last place…’
He looked at the others. George and Corinne exchanged a worried glance, but Alex’s pale face and clenched teeth were what grabbed my attention.
‘It has to go to the person who fought me every inch of the way,’ he said. ‘The winner, or loser, is Alex! Sorry, but you simply don’t know how to relax and enjoy the ride.’
‘That’s not what most blokes say…’ George began. Noticing Alex’s expression, he fell silent. ‘Sorry, Lexi,’ he said.
Unlike Vicki, George wasn’t always ready to apologise. Ever since we’d first met, Alex had mercilessly taken the piss out of him, and George gave as good as he got. Alex had never complained about his insults, but I’d never seen her so thin-skinned. I had been out of touch with my friends for months–I wondered if something had happened.
The awkward silence that followed showed no sign of ending, and I could tell that James wasn’t certain whether he, or George, was responsible for Alex’s sudden moodiness. I did the only thing I could. ‘Who wants a cuppa?’ I asked.
‘Yes, please,’ Corinne said.
‘I need to go,’ said Alex firmly. ‘Another time, maybe?’
‘I’ll come with you,’ said George firmly. It wasn’t a request.
‘Actually,’ Corinne looked at her watch, ‘I think I’ll go and meet Brad at the pub; the match will be over soon.’
Chorusing their goodbyes, George and Alex went down the hill, and Corinne set off in the opposite direction.
‘Did I do something?’ James asked.
‘I’ve no idea. Something upset Alex,’ I said. ‘But nothing upsets Alex. She’s unupsetable! What happened when you were on the bike?’
‘Unupsetable,’ James grinned. ‘Not a word, little Annie.’
‘Should be!’ My response was automatic, and I was once again hurled back to my childhood. I fought my way back to the present and narrowed my eyebrows.
‘She made me promise not to say anything,’ James told me as I shooed him upstairs into the flat. Vicki followed silently behind.
‘We can keep a secret, can’t we Vicki?’
‘Yes,’ Vicki assured him.
‘I’ll make us some tea,’ I said. ‘James, you can help Vicki with the curry. And you can tell us what happened.’
Vicki made James wash his hands, and set him dicing the lamb while she added cardamom seeds to the mix in her mortar. I busied myself with the kettle.
‘She’s…’ James fell at the first hurdle.
‘The first thing she asked you was if you and I were fucking,’ I said.
‘It was the only thing she asked,’ James admitted. ‘Then, when we turned onto penis-tone road…’
‘Pen-is-tan,’ I told him. ‘Only Alex says penis-tone.’
‘Penistone Road,’ James said. ‘She asked me if there was something wrong, if … it … wasn’t working, and she, she had her hands on my waist, and she started sliding them forwards.’
‘She was teasing, she’d have stopped,’ I said confidently.
‘Possibly, probably even, but I panicked and opened up the throttle, she fell backwards, and the front wheel lifted. I braked, of course, and got the wheel back on the ground. She was screaming, and I could see her in the handlebar mirrors; her arms were like windmills.’
‘Fucking serves her fucking right,’ I said gleefully.
‘So, the momentum carried her forwards again, and she grabbed me around the chest. She was still screaming. I slowed right down, and we came back very slowly. She didn’t say another word, but it was obvious that she was terrified. She fought me at every corner, wouldn’t lean, and whimpered when I went over thirty; it was a nightmare ride. When we got to the end of your street, she made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone how terrified she was. I didn’t.’
‘But you told us she was the worst pillion,’ I observed.
‘I didn’t tell you that she screamed all the way back. Both George and Corinne admitted that they didn’t like the bike, but Alex was a nightmare. And she was stupid. What did she think would happen? I mean, even if she was only pretending to grab my…’
‘Penis-tone,’ I said as I scooped the leaves into the teapot.
‘Yeah, well.’ James’ momentary grin was replaced by a look of sorrow. ‘I know Alex is your friend, Annie, but…’
‘You don’t like her much, do you?’ asked Vicki. James shook his head.
‘Tea will need a couple of minutes to brew,’ I announced. ‘Anything I can do to help?’
Vicki pointed at the onions. ‘That’s the next job.’
After stacking the dirty plates in the dishwasher, I added the water glass James had used. He’d refused alcohol, because of the bike. By the time I’d put the bottles of Cobra Vicki and I had emptied into the glass recycling bin the kettle was boiling, so I set about making a post-meal cuppa.
As I worked, I thought back over the meal. James had tried to embarrass me, and I’d tried to embarrass him, with stories of our childhood. Vicki had laughed along with us, and asked a lot of questions. As I made the tea, I thought back over an evening of reminiscences and realised that I would really like to catch up with the rest of the gang.
When I walked back into the lounge with the tea, Vicki and James were giggling like idiots.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘You’re happy,’ Vicki told me.
‘She's a big lass and a bonny lass, and she likes hor beer. And they caal hor Cushie Butterfield, and ah wish she wes here,’ James sang.
‘That’s what you were singing while the kettle was boiling, Annie,’ Vicki told me. ‘I haven’t heard you singing while you were making the tea since...Well, not for a long time.’ She turned and looked thoughtfully at James, who was sprawled across our sofa. ‘And James can sing, too.’
‘I do my best,’ he said modestly.
‘You should do a duet,’ Vicki suggested.
‘I hope you’re not turning into Alex! That had better not be a euphemism!’ I said as I placed the tray on the table.
‘Of course not, you buffoon,’ James said. ‘A euphemism is like a tuba, except smaller.’
As I laughed, and watched Vicki trying to keep up, I realised that James had fed me a line. Plonking myself on the sofa alongside him, I wondered if he’d done it deliberately. There was one way to find out.
‘Buffoon?’ I asked. From the way his eyes lit up, I knew that his use of the word had been deliberate. ‘I must be confused, I thought a buffoon was a woodwind instrument.’
James chuckled. ‘Your dad would be proud of you, Annie,’ he said. ‘Are we going swimblering on Monday?’
‘Swimblerating,’ I corrected him. ‘Yes, you can pick me up at six-thirty on Monday.’ Concerned that we were excluding Vicki from the conversation, I shuffled around, leant into James, and gave her a “you okay?” look. She seemed happy to bask in our banter. ‘That’s one of Henry’s words,’ I explained.
‘So, you and Henry were best friends?’ Vicki asked James.
‘Yeah,’ he admitted, putting a hand on my shoulder. ‘Then I went off to big school, and we sort of lost touch.’
He gently squeezed my shoulder. I somehow knew what it meant: should he mention the incident on my birthday? Had I turned to face him he’d have had to release me. Still with my back to him, I shook my head.
‘I got myself a new best friend at big school, Craig Patterson,’ James continued. He shuffled around to better face Vicki, and gently pulled me back so that I was leaning against his chest. His hand slid down my arm and around onto my stomach. ‘Craig… We were friends all the way through school, although we… I…’ he paused. I placed my hand on his, and squeezed it. ‘Long story, short. Craig left school and did well, I was jealous, we sort of drifted apart until we lost touch. Then, last year, he contacted me. He asked me to fix him up with a date with my sister, Lily. It was easier than I thought, because she’d apparently had a crush on him for years. We went out as a foursome–Craig fixed me up with Kristen. That was a year ago, and it was a complete disaster for me and Lily.’
Because of the way we were sitting, I couldn’t see James, but his arm tensed. ‘I spoke to Al–my brother–yesterday. He’s heard a rumour that Craig and Kristen are together now. Perhaps they always were!’
‘Bloody hell,’ I said. But I didn’t ask any questions.
I heard him take a sip of the tea I’d prepared, and waited.
‘What is this?’ he asked.
‘Mint Marrakesh,’ I told him. ‘It’s a blend of Chinese green gunpowder and North African peppermint. It’s my favourite post-curry tea.’
‘Good choice.’ His arm tightened on my waist for a moment. ‘Chinese green gunpowder is a type of tea,’ he told Vicki.
She smiled. ‘I’ve been sharing a flat with Anna for more than two years, James,’ she reminded him. ‘I know about tea. What’s your excuse?’
‘I like tea,’ he said.
‘Thank you for the meal, Vicki,’ I said. ‘Sorry if I’ve been an arse about things.’
‘Yeah, thanks, Vicki,’ James added. ‘I envy you, Annie. You have a lot of friends, good friends. You both do.’ He paused. ‘I get the feeling that even Alex, for all her issues, would come running if you were in trouble, wouldn’t she?’
‘Yeah,’ I admitted.
Vicki nodded. ‘We’ve rescued her a few times.’
‘See! You’re lucky. I don’t have any real friends, just a couple of ex-girlfriends who still speak to me, and my family.’
‘Family’s good,’ Vicki said, ‘but what about Henry? You said he was your friend. You could always get back in touch with him. I’m sure Anna wouldn’t mind.’
‘My brother is an arse.’
‘He always had my back, and yours, too,’ said James staunchly.
We were still discussing Henry when James regretfully announced that he had to leave. I’d been leaning on him for over an hour, and before I shuffled sideways to allow him to stand, he kissed the back of my head.
‘I’ll see you out,’ I told him. ‘Were you serious about Monday?’
‘Swimming? Of course,’ he assured me. ‘I’ll be here at six-thirty, although I expect you’ll still be in your jim-jams.’
‘I’ll be ready,’ I promised.
The skies were clear, and the night cool. We walked across to the bike, and my mind filled with mischief.
‘Goodnight, Tiger; see you on Monday,’ I said, gently stroking the petrol tank.
James’ grin lit up his face. ‘What about me?’ he asked as he fastened his jacket and picked up his helmet.
‘Goodnight, what’s-your-name,’ I added dismissively.
I found myself being kissed. James’ left arm was around my waist; his helmet was in the crook of his right as his hand squeezed my backside. I slid my arms around him and responded in kind. The kiss lasted an eternity.
When we parted, we stared speechlessly at each other. James put on his helmet, started the bike, and waved. I waved back.
‘Bye,’ I whispered as he roared off down the street. I was still processing the spicy, minty, magical kiss.
As I locked the door and climbed the stairs into the flat, I again found myself singing. ‘Hey Mr Dreamseller, where have you been? Tell me, have you dreams I can see? I came along, just to bring you this song, can you spare one dream for me?’
‘That,’ Vicki observed smugly as I walked into the kitchen, ‘was a proper kiss.’
‘Damn right,’ I agreed. Picking up a tea towel, I began to dry the mugs she had washed.
‘Now that I’ve seen him properly, I’ve changed my mind,’ she told me. ‘He isn’t a bit like Simon.’
I hugged her.
We were standing on the Drakestone, taking stock of our domain. James was looking down into the valley towards Drakeshaugh; Rosie was at his side. Al, Lily, and Hugo were looking north, towards Alwinton. I was last to the top and facing Henry; he had been supervising my ascent and had his hands up, gesticulating, explaining, being bossy, as usual. Suddenly, he was bathed in a red light; he staggered forwards and knocked me from the top of the rock.
Before I could scream, I realised that I wasn’t falling; I was flying. I soared above the stone and saw the others. Most were staring up at me, but Henry was face down and dangling off the edge. James and Rosie each held one of his legs. They were trying to drag him back to safety, but I was distracting them. Then the pain hit me. Someone had injected molten lava into my veins. I tumbled to the ground and landed hard. As I tried to struggle to my feet, the pain hit me for a second time.
I sat up in bed, confused, aching, and soaked in sweat. The pain vanished when I woke, but the cold sweat remained. Pulling off my top, I used it to wipe the perspiration that was running both down my spine and between my breasts. Throwing the sodden vest onto the floor, I slid back into bed, and curled up into a ball. Sleep returned. Thankfully, the dream did not.
‘! Go To Top ‘!