Epilogue: More Fireworks
When I came downstairs, running shoes in my hand, the kids were still glued to the television. Mike was in the kitchen, so I went to join him. He had just opened the dishwasher.
'T'ain't a fit night out for man nor beast,' he observed.
He was right. The night was cold and a dreary drizzle filled the air. Had I been running alone, one look at the rain trickling down the window would have been enough to persuade me to sit down and curl up in front of the telly. Having a running partner was essential. It ensured that I would not be the one who cancelled.
'A bit of water's not going to stop me,' I replied. Sitting on a stool, I pulled on my shoes.
'See the news today?' Mike asked.
'No,' I admitted.
'Ginny was right. The two brothers responsible for the Sheffield killings have both entered guilty pleas. They've been remanded; sentencing will take place in a couple of weeks.'
'Yeah,' I nodded. 'She reckons that they're both looking at a minimum of thirty years.'
'When did she tell you that?'
'Monday night, while we were running.' I admitted. 'Forgot to tell you, sorry.'
'Any other snippets of gossip I should know?'
'Remember "Little Red Riding Hood"? She's been allowed to resign,' I said.
'Wasn't she responsible for a security breach at Harry's place?'
'Yeah,' I said. 'She's got off lightly, I reckon. First there was talk of charging her with something, then they were going to sack her. But, in the end, they decided to allow her to quit.'
'Ginny reckons it's because if they imprisoned people for being useless idiots, half the world would be in jail,' I replied.
'True,' Mike agreed. 'Thinking about it, she must be civil service. It'll be a lot less paperwork for her bosses if, instead of them pushing her, she jumps.'
'Hmm,' I agreed.
Double-knotting my laces, I stood and picked up my phone. Setting off now. I was midway through the first word when my phone predicted the remainder of that recently regular message. After hitting "send", I strapped my phone to my arm and pulled on my hoody, kagoule, hi-vis vest, and head torch.
'Have fun!' Mike's words were cheerfully teasing, with just a pinch of irony. He paused from packing the dishwasher, strode across the kitchen, and gave me a ritual goodbye kiss. As we brushed lips, he grabbed my bum and squeezed. As he did, I reached up and switched on my head torch. He staggered backwards theatrically, hands over his eyes, crying, 'It burns, it burns.'
'Bye, silly-man,' I said with a smile. 'Bye-bye, kids,' I yelled.
'Bye, Mummy,' they replied from the living room.
Stepping outside, I closed the kitchen door and set off down the drive. As I looked back, Mike waved to me through the window. Waving back, I trotted out onto the road. The rain wasn't heavy, but the wind was a gusty and chill northerly and it was blowing me down the hill towards Harbottle.
As I pounded towards the river, all alone in the dark, my thoughts returned to Henry's party. I went through my plans, trying to assure myself that I hadn't forgotten anything. Mentally running through my list, I decided that everything really was ready. Everything, that was, except the fireworks.
Before I knew it, I'd reached the track leading to Coquetside Farm, the point where the circular part of my running route began and ended. When I next reached that junction, I'd be saying goodbye to Ginny and running home. I'd also be running uphill into the wind that was currently at my back.
Living in an unlit part of the world makes jogging after dark difficult. Still low in the sky, the waning gibbous moon should have given a reasonable amount of light. Unfortunately, drifting rainclouds worked hard to obscure it. Because of the inconstant moon, my world was restricted to a few metres of rain-diffused torchlight.
Although I couldn't see any great distance, the iron railings at my side and the sound of water gushing over rocks soon told me that I had reached the bridge over the Coquet. As I crossed the river, an owl hooted. I risked looking up, although the need to constantly scan the road for obstacles made my skyward glimpse brief. I didn't spot the owl, and it was a good thing that I looked back down immediately. I had to shorten my stride in order to avoid a rolled-up hedgehog. Stepping on it would have been a bad omen for Henry's birthday cake.
The world was quiet. The rain had turned into a drizzle so fine that it made no sound upon landing. Little more than mist, it coated my clothing and chilled my fingers. There were no more hoots. The wind in the trees, the wet thumps of my running shoes as they beat a steady time on the tarmac, and the sound of my own breathing were my world. There was no traffic, no distant voices, no children demanding my attention. I ran on through the darkness, free.
When I approached the castle car park, I glimpsed another head torch. That bright ball of light bounded steadily toward the road. It was difficult to estimate distance, but I was certain that Ginny was a little closer to the Drakeshaugh gate than me. Increasing my pace, I tried to arrive when she did. My timing was good, but not perfect. I was less than twenty metres from the track leading to Drakeshaugh when she ran out onto the road ahead of me.
'Cold evening,' Ginny called over her shoulder. Slowing down a little, she allowed me to catch her, then matched her pace to mine.
'Nights are closing in. Winter's coming. It'll only get colder,' I agreed as I joined her. 'I should've put gloves on.'
'Me too!' Ginny agreed, flexing her fingers. 'Still, we'll survive, and Harry's promised there'll be a hot bath waiting for me when I get back.'
'Damn, wish I'd thought of that,' I replied as we made our way down toward the school.
For a while, we didn't speak. In the silence, I found myself again going over plans for the following evening.
'Everything okay?' Ginny asked.
'Fine,' I assured her.
'All ready for tomorrow night?' Once again, Ginny again demonstrated a knack for knowing what was nagging at the back of my mind.
'I hope so,' I said. 'Mike threw a tarp over the bonfire before this lot started.' I waved a hand through the drizzle. 'The thing 'ud be a bugger to light if the timber got too wet. Fortunately, tomorrow's forecast is for a clear night. Any news from Ron about the fireworks?'
'Didn't Harry tell you? It's all sorted. Ron's prepared something special, or so he says. He'll bring them with him tomorrow. Claims it's experimental,' Ginny told me. 'He also says he doesn't want any money for them. It's his treat.'
'I can't accept…' I began my protest as we pounded toward the village pub.
'He told Harry that no one in their right minds would run more than three miles in the dark—three times a week—especially in November. He said we probably stop in the pub for a glass or two of wine and just claim to have been out for a run!' Ginny interrupted.
'The cheeky sod! In that case, I can accept his offer,' I said. 'How was Wales?'
'Fine, the two girls moving into our property on Anglesea seemed nice enough on paper, but I wanted to interview them, just to be sure.'
Once again, my curiosity got the better of me. 'A house in London, and another one in Wales! How many properties do you and Harry have?'
'Just the two, plus Drakeshaugh, of course,' she said. 'Ron tells us we're lucky. In a way, we are. We went from one property to three in ten years, but we're accidental landlords. I bought the house in Beaumaris when I was single and working in Holyhead. When we married, I moved in with Harry and we decided to rent it out rather than sell. We still don't get any real income from it. The rent simply covers mortgage and upkeep. We could afford to keep it, because Harry's London house is ours. It was an inheritance. It belonged to his godfather, who died very young and had no family. He left his house, and everything in it, to Harry.'
'Sorry to hear that,' I said. 'Was Harry close to his godfather?'
'Until he died, very close. Sirius was Harry's closest connection to his parents.'
'Sirius—James Sirius!' I exclaimed as we reached the footbridge over the Coquet. The narrow bridge forced us into single file, so Ginny didn't reply until we turned up the track and headed back up the valley.
'James for Harry's dad, and Sirius for his godfather,' Ginny confirmed. 'Did I miss much gate-gossip yesterday, or today?'
It was a blatant subject change, but I couldn't blame her. Harry seemed to have had such a lot of tragedy in his life. It was little wonder they didn't like to talk about it. There wasn't much for me to tell her. Since Harry's case was now closed, the hot topic for school gate gossip had become Mary's divorce.
'Yesterday was the day after the full moon,' I said. 'So Angela was finally forced to admit that the full moon killer had, indeed, been captured. Today…'
I paused to catch my breath. Ginny was setting quite a pace, and we'd reached an uphill stretch of track.'
"Today?' Ginny asked.
'Mary's after a half share of Saville Transport!' I said, deciding to share my thoughts. 'I don't know if she's a changed woman, or if I've been misjudging her. Perhaps she's not so bad, after all. I wonder what sort of relationship she and Bobby had? Was she always unhappy? Has betrayal and a messy divorce been good for her?'
'I'm not sure she's changed,' said Ginny cautiously. 'You're sympathetic to her situation, Jacqui, and so am I, don't get me wrong. I think most people are. But it's okay to feel sympathy for someone and still not like them. When I first met Mary, I thought she was a snooty and self-important bitch, so did you! Now you want to think she's a better person than she first appeared.'
'Isn't she?' I asked. I knew Ginny well enough to be able to predict her answer, but I wanted to hear her say it.
'No,' Ginny's response was blunt. 'You're thinking better of her because, at the moment, she's not being mean to you, or to me, or anyone, really. That doesn't mean she's nice, Jacqui. It means she has a finite amount of spite and anger to vent, and right now it's being directed exclusively at her soon-to-be-ex-husband.'
Ginny's words were food for thought, and I considered them carefully.
'You may be right,' I admitted, recollecting my schooldays. 'It's easy to forget what a bully someone is when they decide to leave you alone and target someone else.'
'Exactly,' Ginny agreed.
As we continued to climb up the muddy track, the steepest uphill section of our run, conversation stopped. We concentrated on keeping up our speed and avoiding the puddles. In the silence, my mind drifted back to school gate conversations.
'Where's your friend?' I'd been asked on the previous evening.
'Ginny's in Wales; they have a property in Beaumaris they rent out.'
'Still jogging?' Angela asked.
'We're running three nights a week. It's only our second full week, but it's definitely doing us good.' I'd said. Most of the other Mums remained unpersuaded, but that was fine by me. I loved my new routine, and I didn't want anyone to disrupt it.
The running, the swimming, the coffees and chats at Drakeshaugh. Since the new school year had started in September, my life had changed for the better. All because my son had made friends with Ginny's son. Mike was trying to persuade me that we could buy a motorbike, and he'd suggested I start playing my smallpipes again.
Ginny brought me out from my drifting thoughts by asking, 'What can I bring?'
I was surprised to discover how far we'd got. We were passing Coquetside Farm and beginning our descent toward the river.
'Yourself and your family,' I said. 'And Ron's fireworks, and his family, of course. You can leave Ron behind, if you want.'
'I'll tell him you said that.' Ginny laughed.
'Stop in the pub!' I grumbled. 'He can come out running with us on Friday. Let's see how he would cope with that!'
'Very badly, he couldn't even run as far as the pub,' said Ginny. 'Ron, Hermione, Rosie, and Hugo should be arriving at Drakeshaugh around midday tomorrow. Would you like to join us for lunch?'
'I'd love to, but I can't. Thanks for asking, but there's still a lot for me to do,' I gasped. I was beginning to get a little out of breath. 'I'm hosting a birthday party tomorrow night, remember?'
'We'll be there,' she assured me. 'Can I help? Is there anything you need?'
'Need, no,' I told her. 'But both of the men in my life have been dropping elephant-sized hints that, if you asked, I should remind you that they're very fond of your homemade ginger biscuits.'
'I'll bake some tomorrow morning and lock them away before Ron arrives. If I don't hide them, Mike and Henry still won't get any.' She glanced down at her watch. 'Almost a minute quicker from Drakeshaugh to here,' she added as we approached the Alwinton to Harbottle road. 'See you at school tomorrow, Jacqui.'
'See you, Ginny.'
We reached the road and waved. She turned left and headed back down toward Drakeshaugh, I turned right. As I headed back up the hill to Lintzgarth, I tried to pick up my pace. I wanted to be able to sprint the last half mile home. It was hard work.
'When's they coming?' Henry asked for the umpteenth time.
'Before tomorrow, and after yesterday,' said Mike, once again.
I clenched my teeth. The exchange was becoming very wearing.
'But when, zactly, Daddy?' Henry asked.
Mum was smiling fondly at her grandson, and also at my husband. I had my oven gloves in my hand and, had Mike said "today," just as he had on every previous occasion, I think I'd have risked the wrath of both Mum and my mother-in-law and thrown them at him.
Instead, he said, 'Right now, Henry. Headlights approaching. It's them. Action stations! Action stations!'
'Yay!' Henry yelled. Annie began to dance.
My kids were at the kitchen door and trying to open it before the car engines were switched off. Henry succeeded, and our guests were met outside. Chaos ensued. Presents were passed over and, before I could intervene, a very giddy Henry was scattering ripped wrapping paper like confetti. Harry and Ginny were fussing over him. The kids were squealing and screaming and chasing each other around the cars, laughing.
In the midst of the mayhem, Ron presented me with a bottle of Bordeaux Grand Cru bearing a label saying "Warning: Don't drink all at once!". Hermione apologised to me for her husband's sense of humour, at the same time Mike was complimenting him on it. All this was happening while I was trying to tidy up after Henry. At least Mike managed to do his job, introducing our visitors to my parents and to his. As I scrabbled about on the gravel for wrapping paper, Ginny came over and helped.
When things finally calmed down, and we'd all admired Henry's presents, I set Mike to work making sure that our guests all had drinks. Once that job was done, the kids, under adult supervision, were allowed to go out and watch the blazing bonfire.
Small children and large fires always put me on tenterhooks, but Mike, Ron, Dad, and my father-in-law were there to keep an eye on them. Mike, Ron, and Dad all had beers: pints of Riggwelter. Mike's dad was the only one of the men not drinking. My mother-in-law, and Hermione, were on their way outside, too, but they stopped in the kitchen and offered to help. I claimed that I was under control and sent them out to help supervise the children.
When Harry, Ginny, and Mum finally walked through from the living room, I was frantically slicing buns and flipping burgers. They'd been chatting. It turned out that, many years earlier, Harry had stayed in her B&B. He had recognised her immediately.
Astonishingly, given the number of guests she'd hosted over the years, Mum remembered him, too. He'd arrived unannounced on her doorstep on a foul February evening, cold and wet. Later, he'd asked her about Shivering Stone. Either one of those things would make him memorable to Mum; both made him unforgettable.
'Shivering Stone, those creepy rocks on Bloodybush Edge?' I could feel the goosebumps forming on my arms as I mentioned the name of the place. There was something odd about those stones, and my granny had always warned me to stay away from the place on full moon night. In deference to Harry's recently closed case, I didn't mention my grandmother's warning. Instead, I simply said, 'I'm surprised a southerner like you had heard of Shivering Stone, Harry.'
'It came up in a conversation I was having with your mum about strange place names,' Harry said.
'It did,' Mum agreed, 'because you brought it up.'
'Did I?' he shrugged.
'Need a hand, Jacqui?' Ginny interjected.
'I can manage,' I assured her.
'Don't be ridiculous, Jacqueline,' Mum said. 'Those sausages are almost done, so are the burgers. Shouldn't those onions be frying?'
'I can fry onions,' Harry volunteered.
'Ginny, could you slice the tomatoes?' Mum asked. 'And I'll get these buns buttered.'
'You're my guests,' I protested.
'I'm family, pet,' Mum reminded me.
'And we're friends,' said Ginny firmly. Choosing a knife from the block, she began slicing. 'Everyone else is outside, Jacqui. We're not going to leave you alone in here to struggle.'
'I can cope,' I protested.
'But you don't have to,' she replied. 'What else are friends for?'
Mike and Ron were close to the bonfire, chatting away. I wandered over to join them.
'…our trip to London, before we had the kids,' Mike said to Ron. 'Hello, mi-deario, have I told you how wonderful you are?' With that acknowledgement of my presence, he returned to his story. 'You know those little sachets of mustard you get in hotels?'
'There was this American guy at the table next to ours. Really loud. You know the type. Well, he wasn't keen on the full English breakfast buffet, and he was positively horrified by the presence of baked beans and black pudding, so he got himself a bun and put a sausage in it. Then he got a handful of mustard sachets, at least half-a-dozen.'
'He didn't!' Ron chuckled in anticipation. Mike had certainly found a kindred spirit. I continued the story.
'He did,' I confirmed 'He put at least six packets of mustard on one sausage.'
Mike nodded, popped his eyes and blew out his cheeks. Ron's chuckle turned to laughter.
'Exactly,' said Mike. Hermione, a tired-looking Hugo in her arms, joined us, 'The guy took one mouthful, opened the bun, and scraped all the mustard off again.'
Ron caught my eye. 'These are fine sausages, Jacqui, no mustard required,' he said, waving the bun at me. 'Great spread, in fact. I don't know how you did it, bloo…' Hermione's glare could have burnt through lead. 'Blooming brilliant,' he finished the sentence with barely a pause. 'Any spuds left?'
'Just one,' I said. He strolled back into the kitchen.
Everyone else had finished eating, even the kids. Mike, Hermione, and I re-joined the others. 'Where on earth does he put it all?' I asked Ginny as her brother returned with the last baked potato and yet another sausage in a bun.
'I have no idea,' she admitted. 'However, while Ron's busy polishing off the last of your potatoes, perhaps now's the time for Harry to get the ginger biscuits from the boot.'
'Ginger biscuits? Not fair,' Ron protested.
'If anyone wants more than biscuits, there are a couple of burgers left…' I said.
'One burger,' Ron corrected me. 'And one sausage.'
'There's a cheeseboard on the kitchen table. Unless Ron's eaten all that, too,' I announced. He shook his head. 'We have mature cheddar, Blagdon blue, Coquetdale, and Redesdale—which is a sheep-milk cheese.'
There were other fireworks going off in the village, and more further down the valley, but none were as bright and loud as the ones Ron was setting off. The last rocket was louder than everything that had preceded it. As its colourful stars were fading, and its final boom was echoing across the hills, Ron asked a question. 'Is this a birthday party?'
The kids yelled confirmation.
'Whose birthday is it?' Ron asked.
'Me!' Henry yelled.
'Henry,' James, Al, and Rosie agreed.
'Henny,' added Annie, Hugo, and Lily.
'Excellent,' Ron announced. 'This is the last firework, and it's especially for the birthday boy. You might need some help blowing out these candles, Henry. Will everyone help?'
'Yes!' the kids chorused.
'What about you lot?' Ron asked us.
'Yes,' we said, though not so loudly.
Ron folded his arms and tried again. 'That was rubbish; show some commitment!' The kids turned and stared at us. 'Will the grown-ups help?' Ron asked.
'Yes,' we yelled.
'Well, that was better, wasn't it?' Ron asked the kids.
'Yeah,' they agreed.
'This is it, last firework. Let's all just keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best, eh?' Ron asked.
'Cannons!' James yelled, raising a fist into the air.
I glanced over at Ginny. 'Long story,' she said, shaking her head at Ron. He wasn't paying attention; he was giving James the thumbs up.
'And that's why you're my favouritest nephew in the world, James,' Ron said. 'Stand back, everyone.'
He lit the final fuse on the final stubby firework, a plain cardboard cylinder about the size of a five-litre paint tin. At first, nothing happened. Suddenly, there was a loud bang, and the cylinder shot up into the air. There were no colours, nothing. It simply vanished into the darkness.
'What…' Henry began. Then it happened.
I've no idea how Ron had made it work, but a colourful cylinder burst into slowly spinning life in the sky above our heads. An instant later five wide and glowing red lines appeared atop it.
'Birfday Cake firework!' Rosie yelled. She was right. It was a birthday cake, with five candles, and it was made of sparkling fireworks.
'Come on, light,' Ron muttered. Almost immediately, a yellow flame appeared atop each of the glowing candles 'You have to make a wish and blow out the candles, Henry,' Ron announced. 'Everyone will help. On three. One, two, three!'
We all blew, the flickering yellow flames went out, and everyone cheered. The cake itself remained suspended for several more seconds before it, too, faded into the night.
'Bloo… blooming impressive,' Mike told Ron. 'How did you do that? Timing the "flames" to come on last and go out first was a masterstroke. You knew how long they'd stay lit, didn't you?' Very clever.'
Ron shook his head, winked at Mike and I, and looked down at the kids. 'Don't be silly, Mike. If Henry hadn't blown them out, the candles would've stayed alight right until the end.'
'Mine had four candles,' Rosie announced.
I was about to ask about her birthday, but Mike leapt in first. 'Fork handles?' he asked gleefully. 'Got any 'ose?'
My parents chuckled, and so did Mike's dad. No one else did. Rosie looked at him as if he were mad, and he realised his mistake.
'Very old, and very silly telly programme, Rosie. It would take too long to explain,' he admitted.
'Rosie's party was Sunday—family affair in Dorset,' Ginny told me in an undertone while Mike was talking. 'And Rosie's "cake" didn't work as well as this one. I think that's probably why Ron didn't want payment.'
'That's right. Rosie's birthday was my first test; this was my second,' Ron admitted.
'It was brilliant, Ron, thank you,' I said.
'My pleasure,' he replied.
'Only one thing left to do now,' I said. 'You have more candles to blow out, Henry.'
'Birthday Cake!' Henry shouted.
I'd made an enormous chocolate hedgehog cake, with Flakes for spikes. It was a real hit. Even my mother-in-law was impressed.
The bonfire was down to it's embers, the kids were yawning, and I'd packaged up some of the cake for people to take away with them. Ginny was helping me to pack the dishwasher when Harry arrived, Lily in his arms.
'Bedtime for Lily-loo,' he announced. 'Hugo's already asleep in Ron's arms. We're going to have to go, Ginny. Thanks for a great evening, Jacqui.'
'Thanks for coming,' I said. 'I hope Henry has thanked you for his present.'
'He has,' Harry assured me.
'And thanks for making us welcome when we first moved in, Jacqui,' Ginny said. 'I don't know how we'd have coped without you and Henry.'
Behind us, Mike blew a raspberry. I was horrified, but Ginny laughed.
'And Annie,' she added pointedly, giving me a wink.
'Oh, that hurts,' said Mike.
'Not as much as this will, when I clock ye ower the heid with it,' I announced, waving the frying pan I'd been about to put in the dishwasher.
'Michael Charlton!' Ginny couldn't quite get my accent right, but she'd got my scolding tone off to a tee. 'Do you know what my friend Jacqui told me the first time she ever visited Drakeshaugh?'
As Mike shook his head, I frantically tried to remember that day.
'"My husband can be an idiot sometimes,"' she told him. I could hear myself saying those words.
'He is an idiot,' I agreed. 'But he's my idiot.'
'That's me.' Laughing, Mike came over and hugged me. 'Seriously, thanks, Ginny. Thanks for being Jacqui's friend, thanks for everything.'
'I've lost touch with my school friends, and my swimming friends are scattered around the country,' I admitted. 'I think I was going a bit stir crazy, locked up with the kids. Thanks for freeing me.'
Ginny hugged me. 'Everything you've just said applies to me, too, doesn't it, Harry?'
'Well, it's … it's hockey, not swimming, but otherwise…' he agreed.
'Hermione's my friend, but she's a high-flying career woman, and I'm not,' Ginny admitted. She looked around the kitchen, but Ron, Hermione, and the kids were still outside, talking to my parents and in-laws. 'And Luna is my friend, but I never know where in the world she is.'
'Even when she's here!' I suggested.
As we waved at the departing Potters and Weasleys, Annie was asleep in her dad's arms, and both grandmothers were engaged in a ludicrously polite argument about which of them should put her to bed. Both wanted to do it, neither wanted to do anything so rude as quarrel about it.
As I listened to them, I realised that I was already preparing the tale of their discussion in my head. It would be something to tell Ginny about at the school gates the following morning.
'Whoever doesn't do Annie can deal with Henry,' I suggested. They quickly came to a decision. The rear lights of the cars had vanished around the corner when they joined us. All we could see was the glow of headlights in the distance.
'What d'you think?' Mike asked my dad.
'Nice people,' he said.
'Nice,' Mum agreed.
My in-laws agreed.
'Ever heard of the Chudley Cannons?' Mike's dad asked. 'Ron's a supporter.'
'Probably his local non-league team,' Mike suggested.
'A football team called Chudley Cannons?' his dad asked.
'Blyth Spartans, Bedlington Terriers,' Mike replied.
'Exactly!' I said, agreeing with my husband.
Strangers at Drakeshaugh is complete, but the relationship between the Charltons and the Potters is further explored in:
Sports Day, The Drakeshaugh Dragon, Xmas Daze, Owl Post, Young Love, and James and Me