I stop at the gate on Thistlewood Lane to admire the view. It is a cold, clear and dry February morning; the frost is slowly turning to dew as the rising sun struggles to impose its presence through the milky murk of cloud.
There are a lot of gates on Thistlewood Lane, but this one is the gate. It's the gate just north of the trig point, the gate where the rutted twin tracks of the bridleway cross the footpath which climbs slowly up from the black-green waters of Tunstall Reservoir before heading east across Sand Edge.
The gate is on a six mile circular walk from Wolsingham; it makes a decent practice run too. When I'm home, I try to run it every morning.
When we were boys, Colin and I often used to walk this route during the summer holidays. The last time Colin and I walked along this path was almost eleven years ago, at the start of Minister Thicknesse's short and brutal tenure at the Ministry. It was one of Colin's favourite walks and for that reason I have innumerable photographs of it; though none, I suddenly realise, with Lesley. That is because I do not take photographs, not ever. There are times when I should.
I think that Colin would have liked her. I hope that he would, but these days I wonder if really know what he would have liked. It's almost ten years since he was killed and I'm ashamed to admit that I don't think about him as often as I once did.
I look up into the murk. The sun will soon burn its way through, but at the moment I can stare at the bright, white cloud-screened glow of the early morning sun. I decide that it's time to talk to my brother for the first time in a few years. I do the calculation, and start my conversation the way I always do.
'It's almost eleven years since you died Colin. And, guess what, I'm getting married,' I tell him. 'She's called Lesley Anderson; she's from Epsom, in Surrey. And, before you ask, no, she's not a witch; she's a Muggle. I think that you'd like her.'
Les is a keen walker and she is the reason that this gate is the gate. This is the gate where, ten months ago, I proposed to her. And this is where eventually—once she'd calmed down—she accepted. The gate is where we opened the bottle of Cava I'd brought with me and where we drank to our future from conjured goblets.
'This is the gate where I told her the truth, Colin,' I say. He doesn't answer, of course, because he can't, he's somewhere beyond the veil.
Today, I am alone at the gate. It is a little after nine in the morning and the sun is barely above the trees. My bags are packed and everything is ready. I can leave at a moment's notice. I should be getting back home soon, because Mam will start to panic if I'm not there when she's ready to leave.
We have a long journey ahead of us today. In an hour Mr Shuttleworth will arrive at my parents' house and he will drive us to Bishop Auckland station. Then it's a train to Darlington, another to King's Cross, the Underground to Victoria and third train to Epsom. Mam will be miserable the whole time, especially when we're travelling across London. It's bad enough that I work there, that my flat is in Kentish Town, but now I'm marrying a girl from the south. An Epsom wedding! It's a long way from home and I think Mam's worried that she's losing me.
I suppose that she is.
I think than Mam likes Les, but sometimes it's hard to tell. Dad does, he's told me so. Mam just says "She's all right."
Les loves these hills and moors. She loves walking in the wild places. We're going walking for our honeymoon. We're doing a small part of one of the Grandes Randonnées, the Andorran section of the Sentier des Pyrénées. George thinks that we're mad, I'm certain that he'll make some joke about it when he gives his best man's speech.
Perhaps we are mad. I don't think that a walking holiday in the Pyrénées in late February is most people's idea of a honeymoon.
It will be brilliant.
'Dennis Creevey! That's an unusual surname, is it northern?' says Aunty Dora disparagingly as she stares at the photograph of Den and me. 'Lesley Creevey is going to sound a bit odd too, or are you going to keep Anderson? He's not very tall, is he?'
Aunty Dora is an opinionated old fool, but I smile politely, because she is Dad's older sister and I don't want to fall out with her on the day before my wedding.
'He's taller than I am,' I say. It's true, although it's only by two or three inches.
'But you're tiny,' Aunty Dora reminds me.
'Lesley is five foot one, the same height as me,' Mum says. She sounds rather annoyed, so Dora shuts up.
'He looks a bit weedy, too,' says my cousin Noreen, as she peers over her mother's shoulder at my holiday photos. I say nothing. A bit weedy! Compared to Noreen, a hippopotamus would look a bit weedy!
I didn't want Noreen to be a bridesmaid, but family pressures forced me into it. I have three female cousins. I was told that I couldn't ask the other two to be my bridesmaids and ignore Noreen. My killer argument: "I like Lyn and Laura," wasn't enough to persuade Mum.
'He's not weedy, he's very fit,' I say. 'He likes the outdoors. He's not just a hiker; he's a fell runner too. He's done the Bob Graham round. Forty two fells in the Lake District, including Skiddaw, Helvellyn, Scafell and Scafell Pike. He did it in less than twenty hours.' I can't keep the pride from my voice. I know that they won't be impressed, although they certainly should be.
I'm right; they simply look blankly at me.
'He runs up and down hills, for fun,' Mum interjects by way of explanation.
'So, he's mad, too,' Aunty Dora says.
'He'd have to be,' says Noreen, smirking snidely at me. I hate her, she hates me, and she's my bridesmaid! This is crazy. Den was joking when he said it, but now I think he was right; we should have eloped. Of course, Mum wouldn't have forgiven us, but she won't forgive me if my wedding turns into a disaster, either. I wonder what Dora will make of Den's utterly insane one-eared, ginger-haired best man.
'Does he work?' Dora asks. 'He looks like a bit of a layabout to me. These northerners often are, sponging off the state.'
As she speaks I see disaster looming. If Dora makes comments like that tomorrow Den's relatives, who are mostly nice farming folk, are likely to retaliate.
'He works in London,' says Mum proudly, trying to diffuse the situation. 'He's got a well paid job in the Home Office.' I nod in agreement, lying to my mother, because even Mum doesn't know what Dennis really does.
'Where did you meet him?' Aunty Dora asks.
'Halfway up the Old Man,' I say, knowing full well that the words will get a dirty chuckle from Noreen. I'm right, and Aunty Dora glares at me. But that's what Den and I tell everyone, because it's true.
'The Old Man of Coniston,' I tell her. 'It's a mountain, Noreen. When I was at Uni in Lancaster, I regularly went walking in the Lake District with a couple of girlfriends, Shona and Abi; you'll meet them tonight, they're my other two bridesmaids. We'd been up to the summit of Coniston Old Man and were at Low Water, on our way back down to the village.' I've told the story so many times that it's taken on a mythology of its own. The last time I told it Shona claimed that it was her, not Abi, who saw him first. I've always told everyone it was Abi, and I'm not going to change my usual story now.
'Abi was looking back up at the hill, and she saw someone running down towards us. She started heckling him, calling him a slow-coach and telling him to get a move on. Shona joined in, but I was embarrassed and I told them both to shut up. They did, and we all stepped aside to let him pass. He was watching me, not them and as he got closer he looked straight at me and said, "Thanks, blondie. If you can beat me to the bottom, I'll buy you a drink." I don't know what came over me, but I shrugged off my daysack, threw it at Shona, and chased after him. I beat him to the village, and we went to the pub. He bought himself a pint of Bluebird and a ploughman's lunch and got the same for me.
'Of course, he let me win. He denied it at the time, but I got the truth from him eventually. I always get the truth from him, eventually.' Aunty Dora and Noreen are no longer interested. Their eyes have glazed over at this talk of open countryside. I've bored them to the point where they've stopped asking questions. It's for the best.
Noreen would probably think that most of the rest of our story was boring, too. It is a story of lots of long walks in the Lake District, the Pennines, the Downs, the Wolds, the Cairngorms, the Trossachs, and across Europe. We were never fond of night-clubs, when we go out it's to small pubs, or the cinema or the occasional gig (but I don't suppose that she'd be impressed by the Kathryn Tickell Band, either). We've never been party people.
There is, however, part of our story which is not boring. There is the big secret, the one I can't tell anyone, not even Mum and Dad. I daydream about telling Noreen the truth.
'Dennis's job is well paid because it's dangerous, he's an Auror.'
'They are part of the Ministry for Magic, they investigate crimes committed using Dark Magic, they catch Dark Wizards, and witches.'
'Don't be ridiculous.'
'He's a wizard, his brother was a wizard, too. Remember that I told you Colin died in a fire at his school? He didn't; he died fighting a battle, a battle no one outside the Wizarding world can know about.'
As I daydream I realise that the "nonsense" response is the most sensible one. I had hysterics; but then, Dennis didn't so much tell me, as show me. That was the day he proposed. It wasn't a down-on-one-knee romantic proposal. It was more complicated than that.
It was much more complicated than that.
I'd had my suspicions about what Den was planning when we left his parents' house for our walk. I'd seen the bottle of Cava in his Mum's fridge when we were having breakfast, but when I'd gone to get my Lucozade, before we set off, the Cava had gone. I suspected that he had a ring, too, because his mum had been giving me some very strange looks.
It was three weeks after Easter, and it was a glorious day, clear and bright, perfect weather for a short walk. We talked as we walked. Dennis spotted the tracks of a fox, and pointed them out to me. We commented on the flowers, the usual stuff. When we reached the gate he stopped and looked nervously at me. 'You know that I love you, Les,' he began.
This is it, I thought, as my heart began to race. 'And I love you, too, Den,' I told him. I gave him a kiss, for reassurance. That was when everything changed. What he said next was nothing like the romantic proposal I'd expected.
'I'm going to tell you the truth, Les,' he said, looking down at his feet and sounding worried.
'I've been lying to you since the day we met,' he admitted. He looked up, and stared earnestly into my eyes.
The ground shook beneath my feet. Lying! What could he mean? Wild, bizarre ideas flew through my mind. He'd already been married. He was, or wasn't, divorced. He had a child, or children; legitimate or illegitimate.
'I don't work for the Home Office,' he told me.
The ground steadied again. He'd said he was a civil servant, a clerk in the Home Office. The truth must be more interesting. Those "business trips" I'd worried about, his occasional vagueness about what, exactly, he did, they were about to be explained.
'I'm a wizard,' he said. 'I work in the Ministry for Magic, in the Auror Office.'
Despite the fact that he sounded desperately serious, and very worried, I laughed. He didn't join in the laughter; he simply looked even more serious. He was delusional, insane! We'd been together for almost four years, how hadn't I noticed?
'I know how you feel,' he said sympathetically. 'I still remember the day that Professor McGonagall turned up with Colin's letter. A demonstration is the only way.'
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a stick.
'This is my wand,' he said. 'Nine inches, oak and unicorn hair, short and sturdy. At least that's what Mr Ollivander said when it chose me. What should I do?' Dennis looked at me, as if he was waiting for me to suggest something. I didn't; I was still wondering if he was crazy.
'Flowers,' he said. 'I should give you flowers, what sort would you like?'
'Orchids,' I said sarcastically.
He waved his wand and there they were; a dozen orchids lay on the ground in front of me.
'What … how?' I asked. The sudden appearance of a bunch of flowers made my knees buckle, and I leaned against the gate for support.
'Magic,' he told me.
'I meant, how did you know I'd say orchids?' I said as my brain continued to deny what my eyes were showing it. 'Where did you hide them? And how did you really do that?'
'Magic, real magic,' he told me. He waved his wand again and a dozen red roses appeared alongside the orchids. They materialised out of nothing, I had no idea how he did it.
'Stop it, Dennis,' I said. 'Stop pretending. You're beginning to frighten me.'
He put the wand away, grabbed my hands and pulled me into a hug. There were tears in his eyes.
'I have to make you believe me, Les,' he told me. 'I'm sorry.'
He kissed me, released me, and stepped back. Reaching into another pocket he pulled out his wallet and handed it to me.
Don't touch my wallet, that was one of Den's only rules. Our first big argument, years ago, had been because I'd needed some change for the window cleaner. Den's wallet had been lying on the bedside table. I'd reached for it, and he'd snatched it from me and told me to keep my hands off it. I'd never seen it since that day.
'Open it,' he said. I did. Inside there was a neatly printed card bearing Den's photo.
'Dennis Creevey, Auror Office, Special Intelligence Division, Home Office,' I read. That was astonishing, but at least it wasn't as insane as his original story. 'You're some sort of secret agent?' I asked.
'Damn,' he said. 'I forgot. It automatically switches to the Muggle default if anyone but me opens it.' He touched the wallet, but made no attempt to take it from me. 'Magic,' he said, and the writing wriggled and changed before my eyes.
'Auror Dennis Creevey, Department for Magical Law Enforcement, Ministry for Magic,' I read. The photograph of Dennis smiled at me. I mean really smiled. It moved! I dropped the wallet and it landed with a noise which was far too loud for its size.
'This is my Auror-issue wallet,' he told me as he picked it up.
Den placed it on his left hand, opened it, tapped it twice, then opened it again, and again. It unfolded into a black square a little over a foot long on each side. He reached into one corner and pulled out an odd looking stone and a bottle of murky brown liquid.
'A Bezoar and a bottle of Essence of Dittany.' Den held up the stone and the bottle. 'They're in the top right hand corner, easily accessible in case of an emergency.'
Then he reached impossibly far inside and pulled out a suit-bag. 'My uniform, just in case I get an emergency call.'
He unzipped the bag and I recognised the long black coat I'd once seen him wearing. I'd teased him about it at the time.
'The coat is hex-proof, and in this pocket there are three pairs of Weasley portcuffs, handcuffs which incorporate an automatic Portkey. They … teleport … I suppose you would say, the arrested person straight to one of our cells.' He pulled out a pair of handcuffs to show me.
'Weasley?' I said weakly.
'Yes, George and his brother Ron supply them to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.'
'George is a wizard?' I asked. Then realisation struck. I swore at him. 'He's set you up with this! I've seen George doing card tricks, he's good!' That's when I lost my temper. 'But, why the hell are you doing this, Den? It's not funny!' I screamed.
'Sorry,' he said, and he again reached into the bag. This time he pulled out a birch twig broom. My brain had been persuading me that the suit, and the other small items had somehow been concealed in the wallet, but the broom was six and a half feet of solid wood. It was bigger than Dennis.
'This is a Nimbus X2 Pursuit Broom,' he said. He released it, and it fell forward. But it didn't fall to the ground; instead, it hovered expectantly in the air.
That was when I fainted.
'Les… Les…' I heard him saying when I came round. 'Oh my god, I'm so sorry. Please forgive me. I had to tell you, but I've done it all wrong, haven't I?'
When I opened my eyes and looked around the broom was still there, hovering impossibly in the air.
I cursed and swore and shouted and wept. And Dennis let me. He held me, but he said nothing. He simply let me get it out of my system.
'Sorry,' he said when I finally lapsed into silence.
'I do love you Les. I'm sorry that I've lied to you, that I've hurt you. I'm sorry about this mess, but I'm not allowed to tell anyone, except to immediate family, and… Oh, hell! Ask me anything, and I'll tell you the truth. I owe you that much.'
After he'd re-packed his wallet, we talked for an hour. He told me everything. He told me about his brother, and his boss, about battles and crimes and magical places. And astonishingly, it even began to make sense. Sometimes when we'd been out with George and Angelina, I'd had the feeling that they were all in on a secret; that they all knew something which I didn't. Finally, once I'd realised that the world really was stranger than I'd thought, he asked the question I'd originally been expecting to hear.
'Before I answer,' I said. 'What would happen if I said no?'
His expression almost made me cry. He was so sad and troubled. It was obvious that he'd actually thought about what he would do.
'I will cast a spell on you, Les, and you'll forget everything that has just happened,' he admitted. 'You won't remember any of this, because the International Statute of Secrecy can't be broken.'
'Have you done it before?' I asked.
'What?' He stared at me stupidly. I hoped that his confusion meant no, but I needed to be sure.
'Have you told me this before? Told me your secrets, and then made me forget about them?'
'No!' He looked horrified. 'I wouldn't put you through this twice, Les. It was bad enough this time. I don't want to hurt you.'
So I gave him his answer.