SIYE Time:12:15 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: 236985; Chapter Total: 2145
Awards: View Trophy Room


Biker Girls

Despite the disconcerting scrapes and clomps, the bedroom ceiling remained unmoved. While Mike searched the loft, I looked through the wardrobes. My racing red Belstaff jacket was the only thing I hadn’t put into the big box of bike gear we’d consigned to the roof space when we moved into Lintzgarth. From the noise, it seemed Mike wasn’t having much success in his mission. Nor was I; the jacket didn’t appear to be with my other coats.

My tourist trophy jacket was waterproof, warm, and a classic; even people who’d never owned a motorbike were seen sporting them. Despite this, I hadn’t worn it since we’d sold the bike. I’d lifted it out from the wardrobe a few times, though not since I was pregnant with Annie, but I’d always put it back again. I couldn’t bring myself to wear it. I was no longer a biker, and I’d always regarded those who wore bike jackets as mere fashion items with a degree of contempt.

I finally found it at the very back of the “stuff-we-never-wear” wardrobe. It had been hidden from my searching gaze by a garish pink blazer I’d worn only once. As I lifted out the heavy bike jacket, I was horrified to discover a layer of dust on the shoulders. A major clean of the entire bedroom was essential.

After carefully dusting the waxed cotton, I examined it for damage. There was none. Satisfied, I placed the jacket reverently on the bed and looked back into the wardrobe. If the red Belstaff was hope, the blushing blazer that had hidden it was folly. Pulling it from its hanger, I dusted it, folded it, and placed it on top of the waste bin. Above my head, there was a grunt of success.

By the time Mike arrived in the bedroom–my boots, trousers, helmet, and gloves in his arms–I was wearing the jacket and staring at the small rectangle of paper I’d found in the pocket. The six-year-old petrol receipt from Ostend was more than a piece of paper, it was a clue to the past. It gave the date we’d returned from our last epic trip around Europe. Within weeks, the bike was gone.

‘The biker girl is back!’ Mike declared. He followed this observation up with a whistle and a wink.

I scowled.

‘It still fits!’ he protested, somehow sensing the reason for my annoyance.

I pointed at a well-worn notch on the belt. ‘That’s the one I used to use,’ I said. ‘Closest I can get is there.” I moved my finger two notches. ‘And that’s uncomfortably tight. Three notches, Mike. Three bloody notches!’ I snatched the leather trousers from his arms and held them up. They’d been snug six years earlier. ‘There’s not a chance these will fit!’ I folded them carefully and placed them on top of the pink blazer.

‘You can get rid of that blazer, but not the trousers,’ Mike told me firmly.

‘Why?’ I demanded. ‘They won’t fit me!’

‘That’s not the point. They’re a memento…’ he paused, and I watched him gather his thoughts. ‘Remember that stein you bought for me in Bavaria?’

‘The one Henry broke last year.’ I nodded.

‘That was a souvenir. You bought it for me, so it was important but–as I said when Henry broke it–it was only a souvenir. This brain of mine knows the difference between a souvenir and a memento. Those trousers, and the Belstaff jacket, they’re mementoes, they are the holiday. I know that in most ways it’s just stuff… like the stein… and I know we don’t have the bike… but we still have all the gear, and even if it no longer fits…’

His plea was heartfelt. I placed a finger on my lips, and he fell into a hopeful silence.

‘I understand,’ I assured him. ‘That’s why I kept the jacket. But why the attachment to the…’ The gleam in his eye made me blush, and I was swept back to a starry night in the Swiss Alps. ‘Ah!’ I smiled. ‘But, even three notches bigger, I can at least get into the jacket. The trousers are a depressing reminder of how skinny I was.’ I hesitated. ‘How about a compromise? If I can get into them by my birthday, they stay; otherwise, they’re going the way of that blazer.’

‘But…’ Mike began.

‘Exactly!’ I told him. ‘My butt is the problem.’

‘Butt?’ His attempt at an American accent terrible. ‘Bum,’ he teased, grabbing me. I didn’t push him away until Henry scampered upstairs to find out what the noise was.

The denuded trees warned of winter’s approach. Monday morning was chilly but there was no sign of a frost. As I stood at the kitchen door, smells of damp moss, leaf mould, and soil suffused the cold, still, air and promised a clear autumnal day.

‘Have a great time, Jacqui,’ Mike told me. ‘I’m jealous.’ His goodbye kiss was a lot more passionate than usual. After watching him depart, I packed my helmet and gloves in the car boot. I’d decided against wearing my motorcycle boots, because we’d be walking. That done, I roused the kids and began the school day breakfast ritual.

The prospect of a bike ride had put me in a good mood. I didn’t realise that I was singing until both Henry and Annie joined in. We went through “Will Atkinson” twice before we reached the school. We didn’t even break off when we drove past Ginny and James on the edge of the village, although we did wave to them as we passed. The kids had picked up on my mood. Oblivious to its deeper meaning, Henry was still singing the song and holding Annie’s hand as we danced into school.

Dancing wasn’t easy for me, as I was wearing my hiking boots. It was a good thing that the warm, water-resistant, walking trousers would stretch. The ridge pants were the next best thing to leathers and were marginally better dance wear than bike gear. After saying goodbye to Henry, Annie took my hand and, still singing, we skipped our way back to the gates.

I’d intended to walk up the road and meet Ginny, but several of the other mums ambushed me. They all assumed that I knew a lot more about the arrest of Pelias Hume than the limited information being given out on the news. I didn’t, and I was still busy explaining that to them when Ginny arrived with James. The questioners immediately turned their attention to her.

Although surprised by the interest, Ginny simply shrugged them off. She told everyone that she knew nothing about Hume, or his motive. The only things Ginny would confirm to the other mums were that Hume had confessed, that Harry was absolutely certain that the police had the right man, and that there would be no more full moon murders. With that, she hurried James through the throng and up to the school building. The conjectures continued.

‘Surely Harry’s told her something,’ Amanda speculated.

‘None of us knows everything about our husbands,’ Mary Saville, who’d been uncharacteristically quiet, finally gave her opinion as loudly as ever. Everyone fell silent. ‘That’s why Robert and I have separated,’ she added viciously.

The whispers started, and attention turned immediately to Mary. When Ginny returned, the arrest of a murderer was forgotten in preference to a more local and personal matter. Ignored by everyone, Annie, Ginny, and I made our way to my car.

‘Surprised by Mary’s announcement?’ Ginny asked me.

‘Given what we know about her husband’s behaviour, no.’ I admitted. ‘But I am surprised by the fact she’s being open about it. I even feel a little sorry for her.’

‘Me no’ sowwy,’ Annie announced.

‘And you’re perfectly entitled to hold that view,’ I told her as Ginny laughed. ‘Now let’s get you into the car and up to Drakeshaugh. Are you going to be good for Uncle Harry?’

‘Gonna play onna rope swing,’ my daughter told me confidently as I strapped her into her seat. Once Annie was secure, Ginny climbed into the passenger seat and we set off.

‘Slight problem,’ Ginny told me the moment we set off. Safely strapped in her seat behind us, Annie paid no attention to us. Instead, she began to sing “Bobbie Shafto”.

‘What’s happened?’ I asked, instantly worried. ‘Aren’t we going?’

‘We’re definitely going,’ she assured me firmly. ‘But Harry’s boss arrived at Drakeshaugh about half-an-hour ago. Harry’s supposed to be taking three days off work! I’ve told Kingsley that I have plans, and they involve Harry babysitting, but we may be a little late setting off.’

‘Nightmare!’ I said sympathetically. ‘I hosted Mike’s boss once. Didn’t like the man at all. He was totally up himself–all “I’m in charge, all hail me”, you know? All ego and bluster, and no talent at all! It always surprises me how far that can get some people.’

‘Kingsley’s not like that!’ Ginny sounded horrified. ‘It’s just that with–complicated–cases, Kingsley likes to know everything as soon as possible. Harry wrapped the case up yesterday, but Kingsley wasn’t at work on Sunday.’

‘Of course not! But he wants to know now.’ I was annoyed on Ginny’s behalf.

‘Kingsley’s okay, honest,’ said Ginny. ‘I simply hope there won’t be much of a delay.’

When I drove through the gate and into Drakeshaugh, Harry, Al, Lily, and a tall man in a well-tailored three-piece suit were standing on the gravel, waiting to greet us. The gleaming red Bentley parked next to Harry’s Range Rover could only belong to Harry’s visitor.

‘Is that Mr Kingsley?’ I asked, failing to hide my surprise.

‘Shacklebolt, his name’s Kingsley Shacklebolt,’ Ginny told me. ‘Yes, that’s Harry’s boss.’

‘He’s not what I expected,’ I admitted. ‘Not at all what I expected! Very Spencer Jordan, isn’t he?’

‘I’ve no idea who Spencer Jordan is,’ Ginny admitted.

‘He’s a cop on the telly. Waking the Dead,’ I explained. ‘Can’t remember the actor’s name.’

‘Never owned a television, remember,’ Ginny told me.

‘You’ve led a sheltered life, my friend,’ I told her with a sigh.

Getting out of my car, I waved at Harry and managed to call out a quick hello. Harry’s reply was lost in Al and Lily’s excited greetings. As the two Potter children shouted, my frantically fidgeting daughter stridently demanded her freedom. Unbuckling her straps, I lifted her out and placed her in front of her friends. To my relief, Harry’s boss hadn’t tried to talk over the kids.

‘Daddybiddasinganside,’ yelled Lily excitedly.

‘We help,’ Al added.

‘You’re going to help daddy, that’s good,’ I told them, although Al’s eager confirmation held no more meaning for me than Lily’s initial declaration. Her words were so fast, and ran into each other so much, that I had no idea what she’d said.

I glanced at Ginny, whose smile indicated that I’d given the correct answer. She then pointed at a large pile of wooden beams on the lawn near the chicken run. ‘Daddy’s building a swing and slide,’ she explained.

‘You’re going to let the kids help you build that?’ I asked Harry, closing the car door.

‘Yes, is that okay?’ He sounded worried as I walked over to greet him. At my side, the kids, led by Annie, joined hands and danced in a circle singing “Ring-a-ring o’ roses.”

‘Fine by me,’ I told him cheerfully. ‘Mike let Henry “help” build our swing. He reckoned it would’ve taken less than half the time if he’d simply done it himself.’

‘But that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it?’ Harry asked. His smile was broad and excited; he was obviously looking forward to the task.

‘Good luck,’ I said, glancing meaningfully at the man at his side.

‘Oh, sorry,’ He performed the introductions. ‘Jacqui, this is my boss, Kingsley Shacklebolt. Kingsley, our neighbour, Jacqui Charlton.’

‘Mrs Charlton.’ His voice was deep and calm, and his firm but relaxed handshake gave me the impression that this was a man who shook a lot of hands. He smiled at my daughter. ‘I’ve heard a lot about you. And this must be Annie.’

‘Nothing bad, I hope,’ I said. ‘You’re Harry’s boss, I hope you’re not going to try to steal my childminder from me. I’m looking forward to a nice day out with Ginny.’ Almost before the words were out of my mouth, I was embarrassed. Ginny’s blatant thumbs-up didn’t help me feel any better. ‘Sorry,’ I began.

‘Don’t worry, Mrs Charlton…’

‘Jacqui,’ I interjected.

‘Jacqui,’ he continued. ‘Please call me Kingsley. Ginny has already made it very clear to me that she has plans for the day. I’ll be leaving soon. I’m just waiting for a final report from Harry.’

‘Give me five minutes, Kingsley, maybe ten,’ said Harry. He hurried over to the kitchen door.

‘If you really are almost ready to get on your way, Kingsley, I’ll go and get ready, too,’ said Ginny. ‘You can keep an eye on these three for a few minutes, can’t you, Jacqui? I’m sure Kingsley will help.’ Her smile was cheeky. Turning, she followed Harry into Drakeshaugh. While I appreciated her eagerness to get ready, I didn’t appreciate being left alone with Harry’s boss.

‘Rope swing,’ Annie demanded, grabbing my arm.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, preparing to make my own escape from the man in the suit. ‘Best to keep these three happy.’

‘I’ll come with you,’ Kingsley offered. He looked around at the house its grounds, and the hills. ‘Harry’s found a nice place for himself.’

‘The best,’ I said. ‘A lot more space for the kids than there was in their London home.’

‘London?’ he sounded surprised that I knew. ‘Ginny told you, of course.’

‘Yes.’ I nodded. ‘This must have been a long journey for you. I’m guessing you’ve come up from London.’

‘Harry mentioned your knack for accents.’ Kingsley smiled. ‘You’re right, I’m a Londoner, but I was in Scotland yesterday, so my journey here wasn’t too long.’

‘That depends on whereabouts in Scotland you started. We’re about a dozen miles from the border, but a very long way from John o’ Groats,’ I said as we strolled towards Drakeshaugh Woods. ‘From here, you could walk to the Scottish border in a few hours.’

I knew I was babbling, but I was finding it difficult to stop myself. Looking down at his feet helped. His shiny brown shoes were designed for city streets and the office, not muddy leaf-strewn woodland. It would take him more than a few hours to walk to the border in them. He stood in a patch of mud, but didn’t appear to be concerned.

‘So you know the local area, and you’re good with accents,’ he observed.

‘I’m not an expert,’ I began.

Kingsley’s smile silenced me. ‘Harry told me that you’d identified Miss Sidebotham as being from Sheffield simply from her accent. You’re right about me, too. I’m London born and bred.’

‘She was easy. It wasn’t simply her accent; she said bread cake, not bun or bap That’s a dead giveaway,’ I explained. ‘I’m not an expert at anything, Kingsley, I’m really very ordinary.’

‘I don’t believe that anyone is ordinary, Jacqui,’ he told me firmly. ‘We are unique individuals. We all have our passions and we all see the world differently.’

‘Shh,’ I hissed. He fell silent. I pointed at the chicken run. ‘Annie, Al, Lily, see that bird on top of the henhouse?’ I whispered.

‘Yellow,’ Annie told me loudly. The bird began to flap its wings.

‘It is yellow, and it’s called a siskin. That’s a male.’

‘Gone!’ Al observed as we watched it fly away.

‘We all see the world differently, Jacqui,’ Kingsley repeated. ‘I can name every member of West Ham’s first team, can you?’

‘Of course not!’ I laughed and shook my head.

‘To me, however, that wasn’t a siskin. It was simply a little yellow bird. What sort of tree is that?’

I glanced in the direction he was pointing. ‘Alder,’ I told him.

‘Yet I see nothing but a tree,’ he said with a smile. ‘I wonder what else you can see that others can’t?’

He stared into my eyes with such an intense curiosity that I was tempted to tell him about seeing the ghost of Polly Protheroe. Fortunately, common sense prevailed.

‘You might see a sheep, I see a Cheviot, a Swaledale, a Herdwick, or…’ I said.

He smiled at me and nodded wisely. ‘You have the skills of someone raised in the countryside, Jacqui. That colours the way you see the world. But it’s more than that, you pay special attention to the things that interest you, too. I think everyone does.’

‘True. Mike, my husband, knows a ridiculous amount about castles and local history,’ I admitted, eager to show him that I understood. Mike’s fascination was something I’d always teased him about. Kingsley had somehow persuaded me that it was an almost magical ability.

‘There you are!’ he declared in triumph.

‘Swing, mister King,’ Lily announced as we approached the rope swing.

‘Swing, king, swing-king, we all fall down!’ Annie sang, and Harry’s boss began to laugh.

When Harry found us, I was sitting on a fallen tree and singing. I was trying to teach Al and Lily the words to “Wor Geordie’s Lost His Penker” while watching a man in a business suit and muddy shoes push my daughter on the rope swing.

‘Hello, Jacqui. Ginny’s ready; she’s waiting for you at the bike,’ Harry called. I turned to face him, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was staring in disbelief at his boss.

‘Thanks, Harry.’ I scrambled to my feet. ‘Mummy’s going now, Annie,’ I called across to my daughter. ‘Uncle Harry’s going to look after you. Bye!’

‘More push, swing-king!’ Annie demanded.

‘Bye, Al and Lily,’ I said.

‘Bye, Aunt Jacqui,’ they replied.

‘Bye, Annie,’ I again tried to get through to my squealing daughter.

‘Bye-bye.’ Her eventual acknowledgement of my imminent departure was half-hearted at best.

‘See, she’s missing me already,’ I told Harry sarcastically. ‘Good luck.’

‘I’ll be fine,’ Harry assured me. ‘I’ve looked after our three often enough, and I’m pretty sure Annie won’t be as much trouble as James.’

‘Perhaps you can persuade your friend “swing-king” to stay and help,’ I suggested. His bemused expression made me laugh. ‘See you later, Harry.’

As I walked out of the woods, I looked over my shoulder. Annie wasn’t worried by my departure; she wasn’t even watching me leave. She was now on the ground, and they’d begun a game of chase. Harry and Kingsley had joined in. Turning away, I walked past the henhouse and onto the gravel.

Ginny wore tight black jeans and black lace up boots. Her leather jacket was a very dark green, and in the morning light it–like Harry’s, I recalled–appeared almost scaly. She was standing next to the bike and carrying two helmets.

‘I’ve brought my own helmet,’ I told her.

Opening the boot of my car, I pulled out my jacket, helmet, gloves, and rucksack.

‘I thought you would’ve,’ Ginny admitted. ‘But mine and Harry’s are linked.’

‘Oh, yeah. The intercom,’ I said. ‘Ride and chat. Good idea. Is Harry okay with me borrowing his helmet?’

‘Yes, we discussed it this morning,’ Ginny replied. She was looking past me, not at me. ‘Where’s Kingsley?’ she asked.

‘Playing chasey,’ I told her as I shrugged on the Belstaff jacket and zipped it up for the first time in years.

‘Seriously?’ she asked.

‘No,’ I said carefully. ‘I think he’s actually having fun.’

She groaned, and grinned. ‘Mike would be proud of you.’

‘Oh, joy, I’m turning into my husband,’ I grumbled, rolling my eyes. ‘Shoot me now!’

Laughing, Ginny handed me Harry’s bright red helmet. I pulled it over my head. After fastening her own, she reached down, pulled out the kickstarter, leapt into the air, and put all her weight onto the lever. The bike roared into life.

‘Where are we going?’ she asked.

‘I’m taking you to Cragside,’ I told her. ‘It isn’t far, and I want a proper bike ride, so I’m going to take you the long way around.’

‘Okay.’ With that, we were off.

‘I haven’t apologised,’ I said, when I finally remembered. ‘If your carpet needs cleaning, or your sofa, or anything, you must let me know.’

‘Everything’s fine,’ she assured me. ‘It’s all cleaned up, and so spotless you’d be proud of me.’

Certain she was teasing me, I said nothing.

Angela and Mary were still standing outside the school when we passed. They’d heard the bike approaching and were staring at us, so we waved.

‘That’ll keep gossiping for another twenty minutes,’ I observed.

‘At least,’ Ginny agreed.

I’d always had to peer over Mike’s shoulder, and I’d peered over Harry’s too. Harry was smaller than Mike, and Ginny was smaller than Harry. Riding with her was a different experience: I was looking over the top of her head, my view almost unrestricted. I guided her off the Coquet valley road, past Holystone village, and on to the B-road, where we turned right.

We chatted as we rode. We talked about the kids, the injured hiker–who was fine and had been released from hospital–and about Harry’s case. Ginny freely admitted that she knew more about the case than she’d told the other mums at the gate.

‘But the arrest has been made, so the case is sub judice…’ she hesitated, uncertain whether to assume ignorance or knowledge on my part.

‘I know how that works,’ I confirmed. ‘Overnight he went from being “Pelias Hume, armed and extremely dangerous” to “the man arrested for the full moon murders”. No mention of his name, or his past. The papers will be digging, of course, but even if he has a criminal record as long as my arm, they won’t say anything until the trial is over. If he’s found guilty, that’s when the explosion of exposés will start.’

‘Exactly. If the papers printed anything that could prejudice a jury, they’ll be in contempt of court,’ Ginny agreed. ‘I’m not sure how long it will be until it’s back in the papers, but it might be soon. He’s pleaded guilty and made a full confession. Harry reckons he’ll be sentenced in a couple of weeks.’

‘He must be a psychopath,’ I suggested. ‘He wants the publicity, the notoriety. The papers shouldn’t give it to him.’

‘I agree,’ said Ginny. ‘At least he’s caught. Now that the case is closed, things can get back to normal, and Harry can relax a bit.’

‘Relax?’ I asked. ‘We’ve left him with the kids, remember?’

Ginny chuckled.

‘This is Elsdon,’ I said as we approached the village. ‘The castle is on the left; it’s just a couple of earth mounds, but Mike likes it. And that’s the Pele tower on the right. We’re going right over the bridge and left when you get to the green.’

Moments later we were accelerating out of Elsdon. I swear we were airborne when we went over the narrow humpbacked bridge. The road ahead was straight and clear, and Ginny opened up the throttle.

‘Damn the kids!’ Ginny announced. ‘I’d almost forgotten how much fun this is.’

‘Damn them,’ I agreed. ‘Sharp left over the crest,’ I added.

‘Saw the sign, but thanks,’ said Ginny, slowing.

We still took the corner at speed, our knees only inches above the tarmac. As the moors opened out ahead of us, Ginny again accelerated. After a second left hander, the road straightened and stretched ahead of us to the horizon. We were soon doing seventy, and we flew past the first moving car we’d seen on our journey, an old VW Polo. Unsure how to show her how happy I was, I settled for squeezing her shoulders.

‘The Cheviots are way over to the left,’ I said.

Ginny glanced over. ‘I see them,’ she said.

‘And we’re getting close to the gibbet,’ I warned her.

As we approached, she slowed and stared. Many people do. The scaffold stood on a high point, and the wooden head dangling from it was swaying. Of the many monuments in the area, the gibbet is one of the strangest.

‘Winter’s Gibbet,’ I said as Ginny pulled the bike to a halt in a dirt layby. ‘They used to hang criminals here, a few hundred years ago. You should come here in the rain, or on a moonlit night. It’s really eerie. They say it’s haunted, but I’ve never seen anything.’

‘Harry camped near here, once,’ said Ginny, taking off her helmet. ‘A long time ago, before we were married. He told me about it, but he didn’t explain it very well. He didn’t capture the creepiness of it.’

‘I think you have to see it to feel it,’ I said, removing my helmet. We stared at the scaffold, and the head, in silence for a while, and then Ginny broke the spell.

‘Who haunts the place?’ she asked.

‘A murderer, a man called William Winter,’ I told her, ‘It’s all on the plaque.’

‘You said you’ve never seen him, would you expect to?’ Ginny asked quietly.

‘Um,’ I hesitated, then confessed. ‘Mum says I’m sensitive, like her. We feel the ghosts of these hills, but I don’t like admitting it. Imagine what Angela and Mary would do with that information! Anyway, no one believes in ghosts these days, do they?’

‘Don’t be so sure. There are a lot of inexplicable things in the world,’ Ginny told me.

‘Possibly, although–according to Mike–they’re unexplained, not inexplicable,’ I said. ‘He’s not a believer. It doesn’t matter. I’m not looking for explanations, I simply know what I feel.’

Once again, silence fell.

‘Great views,’ Ginny observed as the wind caught her hair.

‘Yeah,’ I agreed. ‘It’s a bit bleak, especially in the winter, but for me there’s something wonderful about this part of the world.’

‘I felt the same about Devon, where I grew up,’ Ginny agreed. The white Polo drove slowly past us and the driver, an elderly chap wearing a scarf and flat cap, glared at us. Ginny spotted him, too. ‘If he doesn’t like being overtaken, he should do more than forty. Where now?’ She pulled on her helmet.

‘Straight on. This road’s straight as a die for a few miles. I wonder if this is a Roman road? They’re the only people who’ve ever built straight roads in this country.’

‘You’re asking the wrong person,’ Ginny told me as she replaced her helmet. ‘I bet Mike would know.’

‘He would,’ I admitted as I refastened mine. ‘Ready.’

We roared off, and soon caught up to the Polo: he was driving down the middle of the white line, making it difficult for us to pass.

‘Arse!’ I said.

‘Trust me?’ Ginny asked.

‘Yes,’ I assured her.

She swerved left in an apparent attempt to get past him on the inside. The instant he moved back onto the correct side of the road, in an obvious attempt to block her, she swerved to the right and accelerated hard. We were past in an instant, and I was swearing, and giving him a two-fingered salute.

‘Really, Jacqui!’ Ginny sounded more amused than shocked. ‘Where on earth did you learn language like that. What will your children think?’

‘They’ll never hear me bloody swear,’ I said. She laughed.

Within moments the Polo was lost in the distance and we were discussing bike-haters, and their irrational dislike of people who chose two wheels instead of four. I interrupted the discussion only to direct her onto the Rothbury road, where we encountered the first cars we’d seen since the Polo. We saw three cars travelling in the opposite direction, and we overtook a laden estate car. Turning left again, we finally began heading north.

‘Rothley’ I announced. ‘The stories say that fort was built to keep Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Scots out. They’re the Simonside Hills you can see in the distance. On a clear day, you can see the North Sea from the top of Simonside. I’ve heard people claim you can see the west coast, too, but I doubt it. The Solway estuary is a hell of a long way away.’

Before I knew it, we were descending into Rothbury. It seemed to me that our bike trip had taken no time at all.

‘Right here, and straight on,’ I said. We followed the high stone wall uphill, and soon reached the entrance. ‘And second right. You’ll have to stop. I’ll pay.’

‘Pay for what?’ Ginny asked as she rolled to a halt outside the ticket hut.

‘Entrance,’ I told her. ‘My treat, remember. I said I’d pay.’

Pulling off my gloves, I sat on them and pulled my purse from my pocket. As the lady in the green parka approached. I flipped up my visor.

‘I’m a member,’ I said, handing the woman my card. ‘Plus one.’

‘Are you going into the house?’ the woman asked.

‘Yes,’ I said, handing her the cash. I had looked up the entry price on our computer and had the correct change for her.

‘Thank you.’ As she dropped the money into her bag and printed out a ticket for Ginny, she went through the ritual instructions. We were told about parking and access, and asked about previous visits, whether we needed a map, etc. I gave my usual answers, and she finally let us go.

‘Follow the road around past Tumbleton Lake and up the hill; the car park is signed,’ I told Ginny. ‘What do you want to do first, ride around the grounds, stop and walk, visit the house, or have a coffee?’

‘I’m in your hands, Jacqui,’ she replied.

‘We’ll get a coffee, and then walk to the house. After that, we can get some lunch, and explore the grounds.’

The café was in the visitor centre, a converted stable block some distance from the house. I led Ginny along a path through the trees, and out onto the hillside. Downslope, Tumbleton Lake sparkled in the sunshine. The entrance, on the opposite bank, was quiet. It was long past peak season for visitors. The few people we saw wandering around were pensioners.

After taking in the view across the valley, I led Ginny through the arch across the sheltered quadrangle, and into the café. Only two tables were occupied, but despite this, I took her through into the empty side room. There, we took the table furthest away from the counter. Leaving her at the table, I went to the counter to order. When I returned, minutes later, she stared at the contents of my tray, and raised an eyebrow.

‘One latte, for you,’ I said. ‘One americano with milk, for me, and two singing hinnies. One each. I know you didn’t want anything to eat, neither did I, but I couldn’t resist them.’

‘I lived on Ynys Mon … Anglesea … before I was married. They’re welsh cakes. What did you call them?’ Ginny asked. I refrained from commenting on her unexpected use of the Welsh language, and instead defended the scones.

‘In this part of the world, they’re singing hinnies,’ I told her firmly. ‘Mum used to make them; I haven’t had one in years. I couldn’t resist,’ I pulled a face. ‘That’s the problem, I should have. I’m supposed to be getting back to my pre-kids weight.’

‘Good luck with that,’ said Ginny, spreading butter. ‘When I was playing, we were training regularly. These days…’ She shrugged helplessly.

‘Kids!’ I said. ‘Love ‘em to bits, but they don’t half fill your days, and they make snacking easy.’

‘True,’ Ginny nodded ruefully.

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ I continued. ‘I chose to give up work. Mike and I discussed it. We can manage his salary, and I wanted to look after them myself, not put them into a day nursery. But…’

‘But there has to be more to life than snotty noses, grazed knees, and tidying up after the messy little buggers,’ Ginny announced. I smiled and nodded.

‘In a couple of years, Annie will be at school,’ I said. ‘And then…’

‘And then!’ Ginny interrupted. ‘What’s wrong with now, Jacqui? You’re a swimmer…’

‘I was a swimmer, and used to do a bit of running, too, but…’ The gleam in Ginny’s eye stopped me mid-sentence. She’d had an idea, and her expression had given me one too.

‘We…’ we spoke, and stopped, simultaneously. ‘You first,’ I told her.

‘When I was younger, most of my training was balance exercises and core work, but I used to run, too,’ Ginny told me. ‘Harry’s usually home by six. We could go for an evening run two–or three–times a week.

‘It’ll be dark well before six,’ I said thoughtfully. ‘But that needn’t stop us. I’m up for it.’

‘Great! Now, what were you going to say?’ she asked me.

‘Nothing, really, at least nothing as good as your idea.’

Ginny shook her head. ‘So you say, Jacqui. I won’t know until you tell me.’

‘Our Saturday family swims are sort-of regular now, aren’t they?’ I began cautiously.

‘Yes,’ Ginny agreed.

‘I was going to suggest–it’s not as good as your suggestion, but–there’s an adults-only swim session on Saturday morning. I was thinking that I could collect you from Drakeshaugh, we could swim, and lunch, and Mike and Harry could bring the kids down in time for the children’s session. But I really like the idea of running.’

‘I like your idea, too,’ Ginny told me. ‘We could compromise.’

‘Compromise, how?’

‘By doing both!’ Ginny grinned.

‘D’you think they’d let us?’ I began.

‘Let us?’ Ginny popped her eyes at me and opened her mouth in a cartoon of shock. ‘How dare you? We don’t need permission, Jacqui! Even if we did, Harry’s pretty easy to persuade about anything–apart from work. And Mike would do anything for you.’

‘You must be thinking of a different Mike,’ I said.

‘Don’t be silly,’ Ginny was shaking her head as she spoke. ‘I saw him when you fainted. The look in his eyes… I’ve seen it in Harry’s when he’s been worried about me…’

‘You were drunk,’ I reminded her.

‘So were you, but if you’d seen his face, you’d know I’m right.’

‘Two evenings and Saturday morning is a lot…’

‘Three evenings. Ask Mike. He’ll say yes,’ Ginny announced. ‘Or simply tell him. He won’t argue.’

‘He’d have to bath the kids,’ I said hesitantly.

‘And what’s wrong with that?’ Ginny demanded. ‘Harry bathes our three; he always has.’

‘I had to ban Mike from bath-time,’ I said. ‘Too much splashing, not enough drying of the floor afterwards.’

‘That is the worst excuse ever,’ she said firmly. ‘Tonight’s too soon, but our first run is on Wednesday evening. That’s settled, and one more thing…’

‘What else are you going to try to force me to do?’ I asked teasingly.

‘Not telling,’ she said petulantly.

‘Pretty please?’ I asked.

‘You could collect me from Drakeshaugh for a Saturday morning swim, or you could leave your car there, and we could…’ Raising her hands, she grabbed imaginary handlebars, and twisted a throttle.

‘Hell, yes! I like the way you think, Ginny,’ I said, raising my hand. We high-fived.

From the café, I took Ginny down to the house and showed her around. She found everything about the place fascinating, particularly the fact that it was the first residential property in the world lit by hydro-electricity. When we finally finished our tour of the house, Ginny was already planning to bring her dad to see the place.

After returning to the café for lunch, we explored the lower grounds and gardens, and then took the bike under the arch, past the house, and up into the grounds. We parked up at the top of the hill, and walked around Nelly’s Moss Lakes, and we chatted and planned. The walk took longer than I expected, and instead of going back to Drakeshaugh to pick up Annie, and my car, we only just got back to the school in time to collect the kids. Our arrival on the bike caused quite a stir, but I didn’t care. It had been a great day out.

By the time I left Drakeshaugh, Harry had already agreed our planned running and swimming regimen. He raised no objections, and the pressure was immediately placed on me to persuade Mike.
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