SIYE Time:13:16 on 13th August 2022

Strangers at Drakeshaugh
By Northumbrian

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Category: Post-Hogwarts, Post-DH/AB, Post-DH/PM
Genres: Drama, Fluff, General, Romance
Warnings: Mild Language
Story is Complete
Rating: PG
Reviews: 849
Summary: The locals in a sleepy corner of the Cheviot Hills are surprised to discover that they have new neighbours. Who are the strangers at Drakeshaugh?
Hitcount: Story Total: 236994; Chapter Total: 4460
Awards: View Trophy Room



That night, after we’d put the kids to bed, I told Mike about the visitors and about Padma’s suspicions.

‘Harry seems to have been to school with pretty much everyone involved in this case,’ he observed, voicing one of my own concerns. ‘That’s weird, isn’t it?’

I nodded.

‘It seems to me that the more we know, the less things make any sense,’ Mike continued.

I indicated that he wasn’t going to get any argument from me on that score, either.

‘Why were those people killed? Four random strangers murdered in an attempt to get this Greyback person freed? It’s crazy! What’s it all got to do with the amnesiac, what’s-her-name–Little Red Riding Hood? How did she end up with that invitation?’

‘She’s called Frances Sidebotham,’ I reminded him. ‘And I’ve no idea how she ended up with the invitation. Ginny doesn’t know, either. I asked her.’ I looked up into my husband’s face. ‘You’re right, Mike, none of it makes any sense! I’ve no idea what’s going on, but the idea that two of Harry’s guests–his friends–might actually be involved in this worries me.’

‘A lot more than two,’ he reminded me. ‘Big Terry and little Dennis work for him and so, apparently, does the lovely Lavender, when she’s not busy producing a new little princess.’

‘What makes you say that Lavender is lovely?’ I demanded.

‘You’ve just described her to me Jacqui, in great detail, right down to the clothes she was wearing.’ The laughter lines around his eyes deepened as he spoke. ‘Although to be honest, I’ve no idea what an A-line skirt is. Frankly, I don’t care. In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve always been an admirer of tight jeans.’ He gently stroked my leg, gave me his silliest grin, and winked. I ignored him.

‘So, based on what we know, what do you think is going on?’ he asked.

‘I’ve no idea,’ I admitted. ‘Do you want to ask Ginny? I don’t, but if you want to risk it you can talk to her and Harry all about it on Thursday night.’

‘Thursday night?’ he asked.

‘Oh, yeah, what with everything else, I forgot to tell you. We’re all invited to Drakeshaugh on Thursday, straight after school. It’s James’ actual birthday, and James wants Henry to be there for a small and very exclusive party. Just us. Did you pick up the fire engine?’

‘Yeah, it’s in the boot. I didn’t tell you when I got home, because I didn’t want to mention it in front of Henry.’ Mike put on a thoughtful expression. ‘Straight after school is fine for ladies of leisure like you and Ginny, but it might be difficult for me, Jacqui. I’ll check my diary and see what I can do. If I can arrange to get a flyer, I will. If not…’ he shrugged. ‘I’ll be at Drakeshaugh at about six.’

James was already in the classroom on Wednesday morning, so I didn’t see either of the adult Potters. After making certain that Henry was okay–he was, because James was there–I lifted Annie into my arms and left.

‘My love my mummy and daddy,’ Annie announced, throwing her arms around my neck. Her words came from nowhere, and demanded a response.

‘And I love you, and Henry, and your daddy,’ I told her as we reached the gate.

‘I really expected better of you, Jacqueline,’ Mary said acidly. Her use of my full name was enough to make me bridle, and she knew it. ‘We’re all very concerned about the number of foreigners your friend Ginny knows.’ Mary charged straight into the attack. ‘I understand that they even visited you yesterday.’

I stared into Mary’s face, saw resentment and anger in her puffy and bloodshot eyes, and decided that I’d had enough. Putting on a confused expression, I went on the counterattack. ‘We?’ I looked pointedly around. ‘You appear to be alone, Mary. And as for these foreigners?’ I shook my head. ‘We didn’t have any foreign visitors yesterday.’

‘The tea man said that there were two funny-looking Moslems...’

‘I’ve known Darren for years, I don’t believe he said anything of the sort,’ I said firmly. ‘Anyway, even if Parvati and Padma are Muslims,’ I corrected her pronunciation, ‘and I don’t think they are, that’s a religion, not a nationality. They’re originally from Leicester. I’m happy to be corrected, Mary, but–so far as I know–Leicester isn’t a foreign country.’

My anger surprised me. It surprised Mary, too, and I immediately regretted the harshness of my words. I stared into the face of the woman I’d spent the past few weeks being either frightened of or annoyed with, and wondered whether what I was seeing was prejudice, or something else.

Everything about her demeanour was wrong. There was bitterness in her red-rimmed eyes, a need to lash out at someone, at anyone. As I looked into her face, I finally realised that she’d been crying, and that she’d used a lot of makeup to disguise that fact. My having “foreign” visitors couldn’t possibly be the cause of her unhappiness. She was sad and angry, and she was lashing out at me simply because I was happy and she wasn’t. The realisation made me want to make peace.

‘If something’s wrong...’ Her horrified expression showed that responding with a demonstration of sympathy towards her wasn’t going to work. ‘Look,’ I tried again in a more business-like tone. ‘I know that we’re not exactly close, but if you have a prob… if you want someone to talk to in confidence, just call me.’ I placed Annie on the ground, found a pen in my pocket, and scribbled my number on a crumpled old supermarket receipt. ‘I can be a bit stupid at times, but I can be discreet when required,’ I added as I handed her the number.

Dumbfounded, she said nothing, but she took the number from me.

‘The offer stands,’ I assured her. ‘Any time.’

Still, she said nothing. I gave up.

‘Bye, Mary.’ Picking up my puzzled daughter, I carried her back to my car.

Ginny was already waiting at the school gates when I arrived at school that evening. I had decided that I would tell her about my morning encounter with Mary. My task would be made easier by the fact that Annie was in a good mood, as was evidenced by the way she was singing at the top of her voice as she toddled along at my side.

‘Bobbie Shafto’s gone to sea, silver buckles at his knee,’ she sang.

‘That’s a lovely song, Annie,’ said Ginny, smiling down at my daughter.

‘He come home an’ mawwy me,’ Annie continued. ‘Fanks, Dames’ mummy, ’lo Al an’ Lily.’ After a break for greetings, she returned to the song. ‘Bonny Bobbie Shafto.’

‘Okay for tomorrow, Jacqui?’ Ginny asked.

‘Yes, although Mike may be a little late,’ I said. ‘It isn’t easy for him to finish work early. What about Harry?’

Alongside me, Annie was encouraging Al and Lily to sing, but neither of them knew the words. Apart from the first verse, neither did Annie, but that didn’t stop her from serenading the two Potter kids–and mangling the words–while we waited for the school bell to ring. ‘Bobby Shafto Brighton Fair, he my love forever mair…’

‘Harry will be there, no matter what,’ Ginny assured me over my daughter’s din. She noticed my expression, and tilted her head to one side. ‘What’s happened?’

‘Later,’ I said, shaking my head and postponing my plans. I could see Amanda Berry approaching us.

‘Mary’s sitting in her car,’ Amanda announced as she walked towards us. ‘It looks like she’s been crying. What did you say to her this morning?’

Ginny stared at me, shocked.

‘I gave her my phone number,’ I said, startled into honesty by the directness of the question. Wondering why Amanda, who’d been Mary’s right-hand-woman for years, didn’t know what was going on, I pressed on. ‘I thought she might need someone to talk to.’

‘Why?’ Ginny asked.

‘She seemed … sad.’ I said, trying to indicate to Ginny that I didn’t want to gossip in front of anyone else. I turned to Amanda. ‘I thought that you and Mary were best friends,’ I said. ‘Don’t you know what’s wrong?’

It was obvious from her expression that Amanda knew nothing. I suspected that she still thought I was the cause of Mary’s tears.

‘I only know her from the school gates!’ Amanda protested. ‘Our daughters are friends, but we’re not close. I thought you must have… No… Are you sure you don’t know?’

I shook my head. ‘No idea,’ I said firmly.

She obviously didn’t like my answer, but I wasn’t prepared to say anything else. There was an awkward silence, in part because Annie had run out of Bobbie Shafto lyrics and the musical accompaniment to our conversation had ended. Fortunately, my daughter returned to her favourite standby song, so I joined in.

‘What’s a’ story in Balamory,’ we sang. After a moment, Amanda gave up and wandered off to gossip with some of the other mums.

‘Well?’ Ginny asked the instant Amanda was out of earshot.

I quickly told her about my morning encounter.

‘She’s not angry with me, with us,’ I told Ginny. ‘I’m not even sure that she’s angry about the colour of Padma and Parvati’s skin; I think she’s angry with the world.’

‘Or with herself,’ Ginny suggested. We stared down the road. Mary’s car, a top of the range black BMW two-series, was facing away from the school. We couldn’t see her.

‘Could be,’ I said.

‘I wonder why?’ Ginny pondered.

‘I’ve no idea,’ I said. ‘To be honest, I can’t see that she has a lot to be angry about. She’s probably the richest woman at these gates. She has a remarkable house down the valley in Sharperton, a holiday home in Spain, another one in Florida, and two cars. And they’re both beamers!’ Ginny gave me an enquiring look.

‘BMWs,’ I explained, nodding down the road. ‘There’s that one, the two-series she uses for the school run, and she’s got a Z4 roadster, too. And when the cars are two years old, her husband replaces them.’

‘That’s just stuff,’ Ginny said thoughtfully. ‘I’ve realised who she reminds me of, Jacqui. Angry, being nasty for no reason… Alicia was like that for months after...’

‘After?’ I prompted. I didn’t know who Alicia was, and I didn’t really care. All I wanted to know was what Ginny was thinking.

‘Alicia was with Lee for more than ten years. They weren’t married, but they lived together and worked together. She helped Lee to build up his radio show. They were a team, and we all thought that they were happy. They certainly appeared to be happy. Then last year, at Lavender’s hen party, Alicia was angry and rude. Angelina and Katie managed to calm her down, but they wouldn’t tell us what was wrong. We found out a few weeks later, at Lavender’s wedding. Lee turned up with a different girl. She was nineteen, and he’d been having an affair with her for two years. Alicia had found out a couple of weeks before the hen night, but she hadn’t confided in anyone. Not even Angelina, and they’ve been like that…’ she curled her first two fingers around each other, ‘…forever.’

‘Robert Saville!’ I exclaimed in disbelief. ‘Who on earth would want...’

Ginny glared me into silence just in time. Mary’s daughter, Helen, strode past us, looked down the road, and trotted down to the mother’s car.

‘Thanks,’ I murmured. ‘I wonder if you’re right. We’ll find out, eventually.’

Ginny agreed, and we turned to look at the steady stream of kids flowing from the school. Henry and James were nowhere to be seen. By the time they finally arrived, Ginny and I had finalised our plans for James’ birthday party.

Once the kids were safely in bed, I put James’ present in the boot of my car, to make certain that I didn’t forget it. While I worked, I brooded about Mary, and thought back to her husband’s woman-watching performance at the Potter’s party. I tried to persuade myself that it was my imagination. After all, I asked myself, what could possibly attract a woman to an ugly, overweight, opinionated, and bigoted... I remembered the size of their house; he was a millionaire.

When I re-entered the kitchen, Mike was admiring the card Henry had made. ‘Who’re they?’ he asked, pointing at the two vaguely person-shaped scribbles on the front of the card.

‘According to Henry, that’s “James ‘n me”,’ I said.

‘Which is which?’

‘Can’t you tell?’ I asked.

He took another look. ‘Red hair is James,’ he announced, smiling. ‘They’re holding hands. Why are they holding hands? Should I be worried?’

‘You should never be worried about two people holding hands; it doesn’t matter what sex they are!’ I scolded. ‘Please don’t tease him about that, Mike. I don’t want him to grow up thinking that it’s wrong.’

He had the good grace to look ashamed. ‘You’re right, of course.’

‘How well do you know Robert Saville?’ I asked.

‘What? Where did that come from?’ My sudden change of subject had startled him. ‘I don’t know him at all, not really. I’ve done business with him a few times. He’s not an easy man to deal with. Why?’

‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘Mary wasn’t very happy today. I was wondering if her husband...’ I stopped, and watched him carefully.

Mike said nothing, but I could see he was struggling with his conscience. He’s pathetically transparent at times. I could almost hear the fight going on in his mind.

‘Talk,’ I said.

‘I don’t deal in rumours, Jacqui, you know that.’ That was enough to confirm the existence of rumours. I frowned at him. ‘And I don’t spread them, because before you know it they’re facts, and people are being judged for doing something they haven’t done.’

He seemed to have forgotten how good my memory is; I reminded him.

‘At the Potter’s housewarming party you said you “could tell me some stories” about Mary’s husband. Talk,’ I demanded.

‘A lot of people won’t do business with him, and these days we always ask for payment in advance. I can give you facts and figures about how ruthless he is in business, but I don’t suppose you want to hear about all the subcontractors he’s stiffed over the years?’ Mike asked.

He was hoping I’d say yes, but despite the fact that I suspected Mike’s use of the word “ruthless” was simply his code for “totally immoral,” I shook my head.

‘They’re facts, Jacqui, and I can back them up; I don’t know anything else.’

I said nothing. He sighed.

‘He’s... well… look, I don’t know if any of this is true…’

I kept my mouth shut, silently demanding that he tell me. When I folded my arms, he surrendered.

‘Joe–from the Estate Agents–told me that Bobby is shagging his office manager. He also reckons that she’s not the first,’ Mike began. He shook his head. ‘It seems unlikely to me. I mean, you’ve seen him. He’s Timothy Spall, not Timothy Dalton.’

I tried not to laugh.

‘I’ve met her, too. She was in a meeting I attended at Saville Transport Services six months ago: mid-twenties, blonde, skinny, and she must be at least fifteen years younger than he is. It’s a rumour, Jacqui, nothing more. It’s gossip. That’s all I’ve heard and it all came from Joe, so it’s probably not true.’

The following morning, I saw Harry for the first time since Monday. He, and a very excited James, were both standing next to his car. They had been waiting for us to arrive, and reached my car before I’d released my kids from their seats. Leaving Annie and Henry in the care of Harry, I unfastened Henry’s seat. Harry took it from me and, as he carried it down to his own vehicle, we chatted.

I got the impression that he was going to Sheffield again, which puzzled me. It didn’t seem worth it; it didn’t seem possible. I was doubtful that he could even drive there and back within the six-and-a-half hours of the school day. When I asked, he said something about having an office in York. Although York is fifty miles closer, even that seemed unlikely to me. Despite my concerns, Harry assured me that he would definitely be back in time to collect both boys at the end of the school day. I told him that Mike would also be able to finish early, and that he’d be arriving at Drakeshaugh as soon as he could.

While Harry opened his car and worked on fitting Henry’s seat into it, I took both boys and Annie into school. On the way through the yard, I remembered to wish James a happy birthday.

Not to be outdone, Annie grabbed James’ arm, pulled him to a halt, and insisted on singing to him.

Henry was a little embarrassed by his sister’s antics and wouldn’t join in. James waited politely until she’d finished, and then said, ‘Thanks, Annie.’

A lot of the passing kids, and their parents, had watched Annie perform. There was no doubt that, by the time he entered the classroom, most of the school would now know it was James’ birthday.

By the time I got out of the classroom and back to the road, Harry had gone, taking Henry’s car seat with him. I looked around for Mary, but she was nowhere to be seen.

That afternoon, instead of driving down to school, Annie and I went directly to Drakeshaugh. I set off at the usual school run time, and arrived at the Potters’ home about five minutes before I would have arrived at the school gates. It was a strange feeling, knowing that I was leaving Henry’s collection in the hands of someone other than Mike.

Ginny, Al, and Lily were waiting at the door when I pulled into the gravel yard of Drakeshaugh, and they weren’t alone. Ginny’s brother, Ron, was there with his wife and kids. There was a colourful “Happy Birthday James” sign above the door. It was obvious from the misaligned letters and the smudged poster paints, that Al, Lily, and possibly Rose and Hugo had been busy.

As the Potter and Weasley children yelled excited greetings at Annie, the adults approached me.

‘Hello, Jacqui,’ Ginny began.

‘This time it’s our turn to gate crash a private party,’ said Ron cheerfully. His words made me feel guilty all over again.

‘Don’t be such an oaf, Ron!’ Hermione scolded. She gave me an apologetic smile. ‘James is our godson, Jacqui, and with Harry being so busy, we decided to surprise him with our presents rather than wait until Sunday. We had no idea that Ginny had something organised with you.’

‘You’re here now, Hermione,’ Ginny said. ‘You might as well stay for the party… Where do you lot think you’re going?’

‘Rope swing, Aunt Ginny,’ said Rose.

‘Not until James and Henry get here,’ said Ginny. ‘You want to say happy birthday to him, and see him open his presents, don’t you?’ Suddenly worried, she turned to her brother. ‘Are they safe?’

Ron and Hermione looked at me, exchanged glances, and nodded. Perplexed, I tried to think why Ginny might think they’d bought something unsafe. I panicked.

‘We bought Lego,’ I said. Opening the boot of my car, I pulled out a cake tin containing the chocolate buns I’d baked and the rattling present in its balloon-covered wrappings. ‘It’s for age five and over. Will it be okay? Small pieces! There are a lot of under-fives here. That was stupid of me.’

‘Lego?’ Ginny asked.

‘What’s…’ Ron began.

‘I’m sure it will be fine,’ Hermione assured me.

‘What’s…’ Ron tried again.

‘It’s okay, Ginny, we… I… bought…’ Hermione again interrupted her husband. She stopped because, behind me, there was a crunching of gravel.

‘Here’s Daddy,’ Ginny told her kids.

‘Daddy!’ Al yelled.

‘Henry ’n James,’ Annie added. ‘Is James birfday. Happy birfday James.’

I took the opportunity afforded by Harry’s arrival to dash inside and place the buns and our present on the kitchen table next to the large present apparently from the Weasleys.

By the time I returned, Henry and James had disembarked. James was basking in a chorus of birthday greetings. He was positively bouncing with excitement, and it was affecting the others. As the kids got more and more giddy, they began chasing each other around the yard, yelling and squealing. Hermione tried to calm them down, but Ron, Ginny, and Harry simply encouraged them.

Henry started it. ‘Tig, you’re it!’ he yelled, grabbing James by the shoulder.

Henry ran away from James, and the other kids scattered. James went after Al, who dodged away from his brother and ran past us, towards the gate. James quickly caught him, because Al was forced to stop in his tracks when Mike drove into the yard.

‘Tig, Al’s it,’ James yelled gleefully as he ran off to join Henry. Al turned and looked for a target; the other kids continued to back away.

‘It’s tag, not tig,’ Hermione announced firmly.

‘That’s what I thought, too,’ said Harry, although he sounded less certain than Hermione.

Ron and Ginny both shook their heads. ‘Tig,’ they told their partners.

All four of them looked at me expectantly. ‘Tig,’ I said. It seemed that Hermione was prepared to argue.

‘Hello everyone,’ called Mike as he clambered out of his car. He looked across at the kids. ‘I see the bedlam’s already begun.’

‘Is it tig, or tag, Mike?’ Harry asked my husband hopefully. ‘We’re losing the argument here!’

Mike looked at the kids, who were all running away from Al. ‘What’re you talking about?’ he asked. ‘The kids? Aren’t they playing tuggy?’

I laughed. ‘You pretend to be posh, Michael, but that’s proper Geordie, that is, pet,’ I told him.

Ron laughed gleefully and turned on his wife and Harry. ‘Tig!’ he announced triumphantly.

‘Tig,’ Al agreed as he ran up and hit Ron’s leg. ‘You’re it, Uncle Ron.’

When Ron grabbed his wife’s arm and shouted, ‘Tig, Aunt Hermione’s it!’, we all ran.

More than half an hour later, I was rather out of breath and hiding in the woods that surrounded Drakeshaugh. I hadn’t seen anyone for a few minutes, so when I heard voices, I stood still and silent, and listened to see if I’d have to make a run for it.

‘…said that Michael doesn’t let anyone into his lab,’ I heard Harry say.

‘What about Trudi and Terry?’ Ron asked.

‘Yeah, but what she meant is that he works alone.’

‘Well, that is true,’ Ron said. ‘He’s a secretive bugger, but he’s been a bit strange ever since the Battle.’

‘He was tortured, Ron,’ Harry said forcefully. ‘But the thing is, a few weeks ago, I met his assistant, Jason Jones; they were in the lift together. I should’ve realised that Michael was confunded, but in my defence Trudi was with us, and she didn’t notice.’

‘He has an assistant?’

‘No, Ron, he doesn’t!’ Harry said. ‘We checked. And the guy I met isn’t even a Ministry employee, although he had a name badge and entry authorisation.’

By that point, of course, I’d realised that Harry and Ron must have established that neither of them was “it”, so there was no reason for me to keep hiding from them. Unfortunately, I’d already heard so much of a private conversation that revealing myself would be embarrassing. As I vacillated, and pondered Harry’s mispronunciation and misuse of the word confounded, the conversation continued.

‘How did he get a pass?’

‘Frances issued it. Her workmates say he’s her boyfriend, but she can’t remember him; she still can’t remember anything. We showed her his picture, he’s not the man she saw with Robards, but…’ he stopped, mid-sentence. ‘Who’s there?’ he asked.

I stepped out from behind the tree, I was no more than ten yards from them. Fortunately Ron’s concerns were different to Harry’s and he got the first question in.

‘Are you it?’ he demanded.

‘No,’ I said. ‘About ten minutes ago, it was your Rosie. Now?’ I threw up my hands.

‘Aren’t you going to ask if it’s one of us?’ Ron enquired.

I shook my head.

‘First, if you are, you have to tell me, that’s the rules. But you can’t be, because you’re together, and I heard you talking… Not everything you said, just voices, I wasn’t eavesdropping,’ I added hastily when Harry stared. ‘If one of you were it, you’d have tagged the other, and you wouldn’t be gossiping.’

‘We don’t gossip!’ Ron protested.

‘Then what were you talking about?’ I enquired.

‘What did you hear?’ asked Harry.

‘You said something about Frances, a boyfriend she’s forgotten, and security,’ I admitted. ‘But I didn’t hear much, I was too busy keeping out of everyone’s way. I’ve not been “it” yet.’

Harry tried to stare into my eyes, but I looked down at the ground to avoid his piercing gaze.

‘Look at us,’ I said, indicating my muddy shoes, and Harry’s grass-stained trousers. ‘This is ridiculous, we’re not kids anymore.’ I turned to Ron. ‘This is your fault.’

‘Most things are,’ Ron admitted cheerfully. ‘But all I did was join in the kid’s game. You didn’t have to.’

‘Of course I did,’ I admitted with a smile. ‘We all did.’

‘I haven’t had this much fun for a long time,’ Harry admitted.

‘True,’ Ron agreed. ‘Although having seen the state of Rosie’s new frock, I’m not sure Hermione will agree.’

‘At least I’m in jeans,’ I said. ‘Mike’s still wearing his work suit, and so are you, Harry.’

In the distance, a child squealed, ‘Tuggy, you’re it,’ my husband shouted.

‘Doesn’t count,’ someone yelled in protest. I thought it was Al, but couldn’t be certain. ‘You have to say tig, Henry’s dad! Them’s the rules.’

‘Yeah, Al’s right,’ Ron bellowed. ‘Them’s the rules, Mike. Can’t say tag, or tuggy, you have to say tig, ’cause that’s the right word!’

Despite the fact that Ron was shouting at the top of his voice, and standing only feet from me, I thought I heard a bell ring in the distance.

‘And I have to say that dinner’s ready,’ Ginny’s voice echoed through the woods. ‘Sorry, kids of all ages, it’s time for us to go inside and eat.’

‘Food,’ Ron’s eyes lit up.

‘Phew,’ I said gratefully. ‘I’m getting a bit old for this.’

‘No, you’re not.’ Harry shook his head.

‘Definitely not,’ Ron agreed, grinning. ‘There’s nothing like a game of tig!’

‘Tag,’ Harry teased.

‘Tig,’ Ron’s tone was gleefully triumphant. ‘I’m right, and both you and Hermione are wrong.’

Harry winked at me. ‘He’s gloating because that’s only the second time in his life where he’s been right and Hermione’s been wrong.’

‘How dare you!’ Ron’s outrage was exaggerated, and he was smiling broadly. ‘It’s the third! Not that I’m keeping count.’

Harry laughed, and slapped his friend on the shoulder.

‘I assume that you don’t want me to tell you that it’s a regional thing,’ I said. ‘Where Mike was brought up, it is tuggy. In fact, everyone is right.’

‘Don’t mention that to Hermione,’ Ron begged.

We were the last to enter Ginny’s kitchen and the food was already waiting for us on the table. Hermione was supervising the kids, who were washing their hands in the kitchen sink. After slipping off my shoes, I went through to the downstairs cloakroom and washed my hands.

I met Mike coming the other way. ‘Hello, stranger,’ he said. ‘What happened to you? I arrive, and you vanish.’

‘I didn’t get got,’ I told him smugly. He darted forwards, reminding me that he was still “it”.

‘Skinchies,’ I told him, raising my crossed fingers. ‘I think the game’s over, and you’re still it, you loser. But just in case: skinchies.’

He grabbed me around the waist and kissed me.

‘You are the most competitive person I know,’ he said. He made it sound like a compliment. ‘I’ll save you some tea.’

By the time I returned to the kitchen everyone else was seated and the savoury part of James’ party meal was ready to serve. Somehow Ginny and Harry had managed to prevent James from opening his presents until the food was eaten.

There was a mountain of sausage rolls, a dozen individual Scotch pies, and the same number of pork pies. In addition there were six huge plate pies; two corned beef, two mince, and two cheese and onion. There was a huge bowl of salad, too, but the kids were ignoring it. When I arrived, Ron was complaining about the corned beef pie.

‘There has to be something on the table you don’t like, Ron, otherwise you’d scoff everything,’ Ginny told him.

The main course was followed by trifle, jelly, and ice cream, and after that came the cake. Finally, after we’d all sung happy birthday to James, and he’d managed to blow out all five candles, James was allowed to open his presents.

Like most young children, James’ feelings were easy to read. He eagerly ripped the wrappings from the present Hermione gave him, and his face fell when he saw the contents. The boxed set of early-reader books was tossed aside with a rather dismissive, ‘Thanks, Aunt Hermione.’

As he pushed away the books something else fell from the wrapping paper, and his face lit up. ‘And thanks, Uncle Ron. He picked up a bright orange bobble-hat with a C-C logo on the front, yelled something about cannons, and put it on. Harry was laughing, but Ginny didn’t appear to be very happy. She suggested that it was too warm in the house for a hat, but he refused to take it off.

Fortunately, after a moment of confusion regarding what he was looking at, the Lego fire engine we’d bought went down well. James, Henry, Mike, Harry, and a puzzled Ron were soon all on the floor attempting to build the model. The dads were, of course, relegated to brick-finding duties, although all three men obviously wanted to do more. James, hindered by Henry, attempted to follow the instructions. The other kids–apart from Rosie, who was attempting to read one of the books her mother had bought for James–formed a circle of spectators.

Later, after everyone had played with the fire engine, we all trooped up to the living room. There, the kids played musical bumps, blind man’s buff, pass the parcel, and pin-the tail on the dragon. The last was, of course, Ron and Ginny’s version of pin the tail on the donkey.

By the time we finally left for home, Henry and Annie were exhausted, happy, and full of the wonderful chocolate Ginny had been dishing out as prizes during the party games.
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