SIYE Time:13:05 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: 236992; Chapter Total: 3989
Awards: View Trophy Room


Out with a Bang

The sky above the Coquet valley lacked any hint of blue. Dreary and dismal clouds hung in the air like malevolent shadows and released their watery contents across the world outside my window. The soggy landscape was drab; the rain had washed not only the blue from the sky, but also the green from the ground. Autumnal browns and bare branches were coming to the fore, replacing the colours of summer. The semi-clad trees at the roadside were silent and unmoving, and that lack of wind told me that there was no likelihood of a break in the rain.

I watched the wet leaves wash down the edge of the road and decided that they were like people. Benign as individuals, it was only when they gathered together that they were capable of causing problems. As they reached the gullies, they were no longer solitary and harmless. They clustered together, blocked the drain, and the balance of power changed. The water had been controlling them, now they controlled it.

‘You’re thinking deep thoughts,’ Mike told me.

Embarrassed, and not wanting to explain my foolish musings, I shook my head. ‘Just watching the water pooling on the edge of the road,’ I said.

‘It’s definitely wellies and waterproofs weather,’ Mike agreed. ‘At least the promise of the pool has kept Hen and Annie quiet this morning. What d’you fancy for lunch? I’ll make it, and you can keep staring out of the window, philosophericating.’

‘That’s a big word, Daddy,’ Henry observed, looking up from his Lego.

‘That’s because it means thinking big thoughts about big things,’ Mike told him.

Mike was right about the promise of the pool. Not even the constant rain was able to dampen the kids’ mood. Annie was looking forward to seeing Lily and Rosie, and Henry was beaming and bouncing and bursting with excitement. He was so keen to get ready that he collected his own coat from the lower set of coat hooks Mike had put in the hall. He was still fiddling with one of the zip pockets when he returned to the kitchen. I offered to help, but he told me that he could manage, and he did.

The moment we set off, Annie began singing “The Keel Row”. I sang along with her, wondering how many times she’d sing from beginning to end before she finally tired of it. She was on her third sing-through when a sudden torrent forced Mike to switch the windscreen wipers up to top speed. I hadn’t realised that Annie was using the windscreen wipers as a metronome, but her immediate switch up from andante to allegro left me spluttering in her wake. Mike was still chuckling about it when we reached Drakeshaugh.

There were two cars waiting, lights on and wipers swiping, when we passed the gate. Hermione’s Mini was behind Harry’s Range Rover. I gave a cheery wave, which Harry and Ginny returned, then turned to watch the Potter and Weasley cars pull out behind us. As I looked over my shoulder, Henry caught my eye and interrupted Annie’s singing to complain about the travel arrangements. He expressed the opinion that we should’ve stopped at the Potters’ house and swapped Annie for James and Al, “like last time.” I disagreed, but he was unconvinced.

I had hoped that we’d leave the rain in the valley, but it wasn’t to be. When we crossed the Morpeth to Coldstream road, the grey skies ahead told me that the Aln valley was as wet and miserable as Coquetdale.

The wipers were still fighting the deluge when we reached the pool. Rather selfishly, Mike parked in the closest space to the pool that he could find. I said nothing. Feeling guilty about my silence, I watched Harry’s Range Rover and Hermione’s Mini drive past as they looked for spaces. Mike switched of the engine, we exchanged a glance, and peered warily out through the windscreen. There was no point in waiting for the rain to stop. The dark clouds stretched as far as we could see.

‘I’m looking after my family first,’ Mike admitted as we watched Harry finally find a space. ‘Although a few yards further away won’t make much difference in this weather! We’re going to have to make a dash for it, kids.’

Zipping up his waterproof jacket, Mike pulled up his hood and clambered out of the car. After fastening my waxed cotton jacket, I pulled on my old Barbour sports hat and followed. Mike grabbed our swimming bag from the boot, slung it over his shoulder, and then opened the rear door and freed Annie. With the rain rapping noisily on the brim of my hat, I released Henry from his seat. When I was certain he was well wrapped up, I lifted him out into the rain and took his hand. Together, we splashed through the puddles to the entrance. Mike was close behind me, carrying both the bag and Annie.

Moments later, the Potters and Weasleys followed us through the rain and into the leisure centre. Harry carried Al and a sports bag, while Ginny carried Lily and held a wet-haired and grinning James firmly by the hand. Ron had picked up both of his kids and left Hermione to carry their bag. Harry, Ginny, and Hermione all wore parkas. Their kids, like ours, were in colourful plastic waterproof coats. James’ coat was a spectacularly bright orange, and there was a cannonball logo on the back of it. I was about to ask about the logo when I noticed that the shabby old duffle coat Ron wore was shedding the rain as if it, too, were plastic. It must have been treated with some spectacular waterproofing.

‘Chucking it down,’ Ron observed as he lowered his kids to the floor, and turned to take the bag from his wife.

‘Hoyying it doon,’ Mike agreed as they shook hands. ‘Good to see you again, Ron. Keeping well?’

‘Fine,’ Ron said. ‘Hi, Jacqui… Hijack…’

I could see him looking for a pun, but Hermione halted his search with a firm elbow to his ribs. She smiled at me as if nothing had happened. Ron shrugged and winked at me.

‘Hello, Jacqui, and Mike,’ said Hermione seriously. ‘How are you?’ After our previous meetings, I was beginning to get used to Hermione, but the tone of her question put me off my stride. She might as well have demanded, “What’s the square root of seventeen? Answer now!”

While I was fumbling for a precise and accurate answer to her question, Mike–who seemed impervious to her questioning gaze–said, ‘We’re fine. Never wetter, in fact.’ While Ron chuckled, Mike moved on to exchange pleasantries with Ginny and Harry.

I was chatting to Ron about Rose and Hugo when James and Henry got restless. They quickly wound up the other kids, and soon they were all reminding us that we were supposed to be swimming, not talking.

The pool was more crowded than usual; I assumed that it was because of the weather. To some extent, it probably was, but it didn’t take me long to realise that a number of the extra bodies were teens. It soon became obvious that one of the boys was celebrating his sixteenth birthday. The birthday boy was a swimmer, broad-shouldered, good looking–if a little pimply, and a bit of a poseur. I recognised the behaviour; I’d been there and done that.

A birthday trip to the pool! It was simply an excuse for the swimmer to show off his prowess in the water. He’d got his male friends into swim-shorts while he was in trunks, and the girls were in bikinis. We were faced with a group who were doing everything you’d expect hormonal teens faced with lots of flesh to do. There was much splashing and ducking, and several blatant attempts at fondling. To the annoyance of his male friends, three of the girls were vying for the birthday boy’s attention. It was obvious that he was impressing all the girls with his dives, swimming ability, and underwater antics. All this teenage flesh and flirtation was disrupting my attempts to teach the four oldest kids.

I soon got myself narked by the constant splashing and interruptions. I was close to snapping, and about to say something I’d regret to birthday boy, when the girl with the biggest boobs–the one who all the boys were trying to stay close too–had a major problem with her bikini top. It seemed that the clip broke, or snapped off. She squealed and ducked under the water in an attempt to cover her modesty, but whatever had happened to her top was enough that she was unable to refasten it.

The pool fell silent and, although some pretended not to, everyone was watching her. She scampered from the pool, a hand behind her back holding her top in place. It wasn’t long before the others followed. I felt a little sorry for the girl, but was more relieved that they’d all gone. I was about to restart my lesson when I noticed that Hermione was angry with Ron. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but it seemed to me that Hermione was blaming her husband for the girl’s mishap.

That was impossible, of course. When the incident happened, I’d been in the main part of the pool with Harry, James, Henry, Al, and Rosie. Hermione was in the small pool with Ginny, Mike, Annie, Lily, and Hugo. Ron had, I assume, been to the loo. He was just walking back from the changing rooms when the girl fled past him.

I couldn’t be bothered to find out what Hermione’s problem was; I was much more interested in concentrating on the kids. When my lesson recommenced, Harry and I were joined by Hermione. Under a barrage of questions, I had to explain to her what I was trying to do. It wasn’t easy. It was obvious that Ron’s wife wasn’t a confident swimmer; it was even more obvious that she wanted to know everything I was trying to teach Rosie and why. Fortunately, Harry diverted her, and I returned my attention to the kids.

Once the teenagers had gone, the afternoon flew by. Despite the interruptions, Rosie and Al were both much more confident in the water when we finally climbed out of the pool than when they’d entered the water. I was feeling rather pleased with my efforts as Mike and I herded Henry and Annie into a cubicle.

‘What do you have planned for dinner?’ Mike asked as he towelled Henry dry.

‘I got a chili con carne out of the freezer this morning, why?’ I asked.

‘Ron asked me about local pubs. I told him about The Anglers and The Wheatsheaf. He’s persuaded Harry and Ginny to go to the pub for a meal on the way home. We’re invited, if…’

‘Weed-seef?’ Henry interrupted his father. ‘Izzat where’s ’at great big slide an’ fings? We gonna play wiff James ‘n’ Al ‘n’ Lily ‘n’ Rosie ‘n’ Hugo?’

I hesitated.

‘I’m not asking you to take over the driving,’ Mike assured me. ‘The weather’s cleared up here, and even if it’s still raining in the dale, we can let the kids loose in the pub’s indoor play area and pretend we’re grown-ups. You can even have a glass or two of wine.’

I continued to ponder. It seemed to me that Ginny, Ron, and Mike had cooked up this plan together. A trip to the pub was always a good plan for my husband, and I was fairly certain he’d found a kindred spirit in Ron. I was about to ask, but Mike spoke first.

‘You know you want to,’ he told me. ‘Say yes.’

‘Yes,’ Henry said. ‘Me’n Annie wanna go play wiff everybody, do’n’ we Annie.’

‘Play, yes,’ she agreed.

‘Chili for Sunday dinner?’ I asked scornfully. ‘Not sure what the hungry oaf I live with will think about that!’ Mike’s a full-on Sunday roast man, and I wanted to be certain I wasn’t going to get any hassle the following day.

‘End of the holidays. Special occasion. Nowt’s the bother,’ he assured me, laughing.

‘Fine,’ I agreed. The kids cheered, and Mike kissed me.

When we finally got ourselves sorted and left our cubicle, the Potters and Weasleys were waiting for us. Harry and Ginny were both ready to persuade me to go to the pub with them, but with one word, ‘Sorted,’ Mike assured them that no persuasion was necessary.

‘We’re paying,’ Harry said firmly.

‘No…’ I began.

‘Consider it a babysitting fee,’ Ginny told me firmly. I took one look into her face and realised that arguing with her wasn’t an option.

‘There’s no need,’ I protested feebly.

‘Probably not,’ said Ginny, smiling. ‘But, we’re paying anyway.’

‘Then I’ll buy us a bottle of wine,’ I told her firmly. ‘We can share it. The drivers will have to make do with fruit juice or pop. Will you help us drink it, Hermione?’

‘I’d love too, but I can’t,’ she told me, rolling her eyes wearily. ‘Ron still hasn’t passed his driving test.’

‘Really?’ Mike was incredulous. He turned to Ron. ‘How on earth do you get to work?’

‘Train and tube,’ Hermione answered for her confused-looking husband.

‘London!’ Mike nodded wisely. ‘Probably easiest.’

‘I thought you lived out in the West Country,’ I said.

‘It’s not Cornwall, or Devon, and we do have good connections. Look, the rain has finally stopped.’ Hermione’s explanation was brief and her change of subject blatant.

We followed her into the car park. The ground was still wet and puddle-strewn, and the moist air was filled with the fresh clear scent of a world washed clean. The sun remained unseen, but the clouds above were now a hopeful white rather than a depressing grey. I took a deep, and embarrassingly noisy, breath. Everyone looked at me.

‘I love the smell of after-a-storm,’ I admitted. They smiled politely, and I was certain that they thought I was completely mad.

As we drove to the pub, I finally remembered to ask Mike what had happened with the teens. ‘No idea,’ he admitted. ‘I could see that you were starting to boil, and I mentioned it to Ron. He excused himself and went off into the changing rooms. He was still there when Norma had her little accident, and they all left.’

‘Norma!’ I sighed. ‘You told Ron about that name, didn’t you?’

‘Yup,’ he admitted, chuckling. ‘It got a laugh out of him, but I don’t think Hermione thought it was funny.’

It’s an old joke of Mike’s. Any busty woman he sees is “Norma”. If anyone asks how he knows, he’ll gleefully tell them that her surname is “Snockers”. It’s a really terrible pun, and not exactly PC, and he knows it. He grinned at me. I shook my head in despair. Sometimes, he’s simply incorrigible.

It was still early when we arrived at the pub–the clock on the dashboard said 5:04. The Wheatsheaf wasn’t full, but there were enough early diners to ensure they couldn’t immediately provide a table for six adults and seven kids.

Thirteen at dinner! I said nothing, and pushed silly superstitions to the back of my mind.

The waitress was great, and she gave us a choice: two tables at opposite ends of the dining area immediately, or an indeterminate wait until they could move a couple of tables to keep us all together. Given the early hour, and the fact that Henry was telling the other kids how great the indoor play area was, we opted to wait.

Harry and Mike both declined a drink, and went off to supervise the kids. For some reason Henry insisted on keeping his raincoat with him. I tried to persuade him otherwise, but he turned on his stubborn face. Rather than drive him to tears, I relented.

Mike nodded approvingly. ‘It’s not hurting anyone,’ he told me. ‘Just get yourself a drink and relax. Take some time off. Harry and I can cope with seven five-and-unders.’

When they’d gone, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and I found a small table in the bar, and took the opportunity to indulge in some child-free chatting. Ron offered to buy me a drink, but I refused. Following him to the bar, I waited until he’d paid for his drinks, a pint of Puffing Billy for himself and a fresh orange juice for Hermione, and ordered a bottle of Merlot from the barman. When I returned to the table with the bottle and two glasses, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny were talking about school.

We were well through the bottle, and still discussing our kids’ education, when the waitress came over to tell us that our table was ready. I volunteered to collect the others from the play area. As I walked through the lounge bar, I pondered my discussion with Ron and Hermione. They both harboured much higher hopes for their children than I did for mine. When I arrived at the play area, there was no sign of the kids.

‘See that big cube at the top of the rope ladder?’ Mike asked. ‘They’ve all squeezed in there. In all probability, they’re plotting world domination.’

Harry laughed. ‘We thought they’d be coming straight down the slide, but they didn’t.’

‘Charltons, Potters, Weasleys, it’s time for food,’ I shouted.

There was a chorus of okays, and one by one they came down the slide and dropped into the ball pool. By the time we’d lifted them all out and herded them through the pub, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny had moved into the pub’s huge conservatory to claim our table. It took us some time to settle the kids, but after the pool and the play area, they were hungry.

The menu was as expansive as I remembered, but nothing was cheap. As we gazed out over Coquetdale, I tried to decide what to have. The Wheatsheaf’s fillet steaks were usually excellent, but knowing that the Potters were paying, I decided against ordering the most expensive item on the menu. Instead, I settled for the gammon steak with pineapple and fried egg.

When the waitress arrived to take our order, Ron was still vacillating. As she took the kid’s orders–fish fingers and chips for my two–Ron continued to scan the menu.

‘Steak and kidney pie or a fillet steak?’ he wondered aloud.

‘If it helps, it’s a proper steak pie, shortcrust pastry top and bottom,’ Mike assured him from across the table. ‘Not one of those daft ramekins full of stew hiding under a puff-pastry hat, which is what most pubs try to pass off as a pie!’

‘And that’s why I don’t like the pies at the Royal Oak,’ Ron told his wife. It was obvious that Mike’s joke had actually been enlightening.

Ron was still chuckling to himself about Mike’s comment when Annie decided to tell the entire pub that she needed a wee-wee. As Ron, still laughing, ordered the pie and another pint of Puffing Billy from our waitress, I lifted Annie from her chair and carried her through to the ladies. When I returned, I discovered that Ron had ordered a second bottle of Merlot, too.

I protested, but my glass had been filled in my absence. From his face, I had no doubt that Mike had approved Ron’s generous act. Our first bottle was gone, and the second started. We couldn’t send it back. Faced with a fait accompli, I surrendered to the inevitable. When we’d first arrived, the three drivers had made it clear that they weren’t touching any alcohol. As Ron was drinking pints, it would be up to Ginny and I to finish the wine.

‘I never drink an entire bottle by myself,’ I addressed my half-hearted complaint at my husband, not Ron. ‘You’ll have to take charge of the kids.’

‘Seems fair enough,’ Mike said, smiling. ‘You and Ginny have had them all week, now it’s the Dads’ turn, isn’t that right, Harry?’

‘Yes.’ As Harry stared at his three kids, sorrow furrowed his brow for a second. It was immediately replaced by a brave face for his kids, but it wasn’t quick enough.

‘S’alright, Daddy,’ Al said.

‘Dat lady wiff a hippogriff on ’er bum’ll find him,’ James added.

‘She will,’ Ginny agreed, giving me a warning glance. Understanding her concern, I tried to silently convey the fact that I wasn’t about to say anything. It seemed that–like me–the Potters had avoided talking about Polly’s death, and her funeral, to their children.

‘And then,’ Ginny added. ‘Daddy will be taking some time off work.’

‘After the paperwork’s done,’ Harry corrected her.

‘You can do the paperwork from home,’ said Ginny firmly. She lifted the wine bottle. ‘Do you need topping up, Jacqui?’

‘No, thanks, Ginny,’ I said. ‘I’ll wait until the meal arrives. I’m not much of a drinker; two bottles between two of us is a lot. Are you sure you don’t want some, Ron?’

‘No, thanks,’ Ron said.

‘I fink I’d like to try it,’ said James hopefully.

‘Not until you’re seventeen, James,’ Ginny said firmly.

Sometimes, Ginny’s lack of knowledge about really ordinary stuff astonished me. I knew her well enough to know that she wasn’t stupid, but she seemed to be ignorant of so many things. I was going to correct her, but Hermione jumped in first.

‘Eighteen, Ginny.’

That was when Mike stepped in. ‘Actually, right here and right now, it’s sixteen, Hermione,’ he told her.

She was obviously astonished to be so firmly contradicted, and for a moment I thought she was going to argue.

‘Is it?’ asked Ron gleefully.

‘You have to be eighteen to buy alcohol,’ began Mike diplomatically. ‘But sixteen and seventeen-year-olds can drink on licensed premises, which we are.’ He gestured around the room. ‘Provided that the alcohol is ordered with a meal, and there’s an adult with them.’ He gestured at the set table, and us, by way of explanation.

‘Really?’ Ron asked. He glanced at his wife for confirmation. She shrugged, and Harry and Ron exchanged looks of amazement.

‘Let’s just hope that this lot have forgotten this conversation eleven years from now,’ I told Mike.

He stared at me in disbelief. ‘Remind me, Jacqueline, my darling. How old were you when you had your first alcoholic drink?’ I glared at him, and refused to answer.

‘I was fifteen,’ admitted Ginny cheerfully.

‘Me, too,’ Mike told her. ‘And so was Jacqui,’ he added in a confidential whisper that everyone could hear. ‘What was it, Ginny, beer, cider, the dread Lambrini?’

‘Whisky,’ she replied calmly.

‘Bloo-imey!’ he said. ‘All I managed to snaffle was a can of Carling. I didn’t like it! But then it is a bland, mass-produced lager. What about the rest of you?’

‘My parents used to holiday in France,’ Hermione began.

‘Wine with a meal at age ten?’ Mike asked, grinning.

‘I wasn’t that young,’ she said carefully.

‘What about you two?’ I asked Harry and Ron. They looked at each other, and shrugged.

‘A few days before your seventeenth, Harry?’ Ginny suggested. ‘Moody, like me.’

‘You and Harry were moody teens?’ Mike smiled at her as she spoke. ‘I’m not sure I can believe that!’

Four faces fell, and the conversation stopped. The Potters and Weasleys were uncertain what to say, and Mike immediately realised that he’d said something wrong.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I just meant… Well, most sixteen-year-olds are… but… I’ll just shut up now, shall I?’

‘Yes,’ I told him firmly, uncertain about what had just happened.

‘It’s…’ Harry began.

‘Not important,’ said Ginny firmly. ‘Well, it is, but not here and now. What did you think of the play area, James?’ Like Hermione, earlier, her change of subject was abrupt.

‘Great,’ James told us.

‘Henry’s nice,’ Rosie added. ‘He…’

‘He is,’ James interrupted her. ‘He showed us all the slides and fings.’

‘Yeah,’ Al agreed. ‘Good.’

The kids exchanged glances, fell into an uneasy silence, and Harry, Ginny, Hermione, and I exchanged a “do we keep questioning them?” look. It was obvious that they were hiding some minor misdemeanour or other, but they were happy in each other’s company, and there were no obvious quarrels or grudges. Without words, we agreed to say no more.

Ron and Mike, meanwhile, were discussing beer. Or, at least, Mike was extolling the virtues’ of Wylam’s Jakehead IPA. Their conversation soon turned to Ron’s local, The Cricketers, and several beers I’d never heard of. I left them to it, turned to Hermione, and started a different conversation. I soon realised that I was lecturing her on the health and fitness benefits of swimming. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to mind. She even asked me some intelligent questions.

The food, and the company, were good. The conversation stayed on solid ground, with discussions centring on our children, their behaviour, and our hopes for their futures. As the tables were cleared, Hermione was trying to explain to Ginny why she was convinced that her two would both be prefects, and Head Boy and Girl. Harry was smiling indulgently at her, while Ginny and I admitted that we were setting our sights lower.

‘I don’t really care how well they do,’ I said. ‘Provided that they’re happy, of course.’

‘Happiness!’ Ginny agreed. Raising her glass, she chinked it against mine. ‘That really is the only thing that matters, isn’t it, Harry?’

The look he gave her made my heart melt.

‘To happiness,’ Ginny said, raising her wine glass.

Everyone joined us in that toast, even the kids. Ginny then, rather drunkenly, announced that friends and family were all that were needed for happiness. She and I raised our glasses again and toasted friends and family. Mike smiled indulgently at me, and I realised that I was feeling more than a little lightheaded. My wine glass was still half full, but the bottle was empty. Despite my protests, Ginny and I had managed to finish two bottles of Merlot between us. I looked around at good company and empty plates, and realised the evening was coming to an end. I checked my watch. It wasn’t even close to eight o’clock.

‘Drakeshaugh for coffee,’ Ginny announced. ‘No arguments.’

The night was cold when I clambered out of the car at Drakeshaugh. A surfeit of wine had made me a little clumsy, so I left Mike to unbuckle the kids. The wind was brisk and the sky miraculously clear. The stars were diamonds on black velvet, and I was rather drunk.

The moment they were freed from the cars, James slapped Al’s arm, shouted, ‘Tig,’ and ran off into the darkness. The kids all scattered; rather than give chase, Al looked at us hopefully.

‘Kids only,’ Ron made the decision for us. ‘We’re going into the warm.’

Al turned and ran off after the others.

‘Be careful,’ Harry called after him. ‘It’s dark.’

‘And don’t stay out too long,’ Hermione added.

As they vanished into the trees, I was still debating whether or not to call my two back. Mike distracted me from my considerations by walking up behind me and putting his arms around my waist. I felt his breath on my ear.

Before he could speak, someone said, ‘Harry!’

We all remained silent as Harry pulled out his phone. ‘Terry,’ he replied, looking down into it.

‘Someone has broken into Seamus’ place,’ Terry said. ‘Not really a job for us, but it’s Seamus, so I’ve despatched Susan and a full team. I thought you should know.’

‘Anything ta…’ Harry got no further, because I screamed.

The ghost of Polly Protheroe drifted through the kitchen door of Drakeshaugh, stared at me in surprise, and turned to Harry. ‘I’ve been looking for you, boss,’ she said urgently. ‘He’s here!’

As I pointed at the ghost, my scream now no more than a worried whimper, everything went crazy. A bell sounded, a klaxon blared, and a woman’s voice said, ‘Code Blue, Code Blue, unauthorised intruder at the Head Auror’s home. Emergency Portkey in ten, nine, eight…’

By then Harry was sprinting into the trees, taking the counting voice with him. The ghost of Polly followed, as did Ron, Hermione, and Ginny. I could feel myself fighting for breath. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, faint. Mike was holding me, but also trying to lower me to the ground so that he could follow.

When the woman’s voice reached six there was a loud noise, like a gunshot. My wine-fuddled brain couldn’t decide whether the noise was an actual gunshot, or merely Al shouting the word, ‘Bang!’

When the woman’s countdown reached zero, I was sitting on the uncomfortable gravel and Mike was whispering reassuringly in my ear. I saw blue lights flashing in the woods, but couldn’t figure out how the emergency services had arrived on scene so quickly, or how they’d driven through the trees. I gave up, and closed my eyes.
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