It was seven o'clock in the morning when I finally decided that I wasn't going to get any real sleep. I rolled off my bed, tiptoed into the kitchen, and began to make myself a pot of tea.
I immersed myself in the ritual, emptying and rinsing the kettle before filling it with fresh water and setting it to boil. Taking my mug from the tree, I found my strainer in the drawer and carefully set it in the mug.
As the kettle began its first hiss, I looked along the line of caddies. Definitely not the Himalayan Darjeeling, nor the Lapsang Souchong; I hesitated over the Ceylon Orange Pekoe, but I finally went for the Classic Earl Grey. I carefully placed the caddy next to my teapot, a traditional Brown Betty which Mum had bought for me when I'd left home. I lifted the teapot lid and, to my horror, I discovered that there was stale tea in it. After sniffing at it cautiously, and wrinkling my nose in disgust, I upended the pot over the sink. A couple of cheap supermarket own-brand teabags dropped out. From the state of them, they'd been there for weeks.
There were teabags in my teapot. Vicki couldn't have done it. She wouldn't dare. I'd made that abundantly clear to her on the one and only occasion she'd used my pot. She would never again presume to put teabags in my teapot, I was certain of it.
It could only have been Simon. I remembered the morning I'd left for home, three weeks earlier. The night before I'd caught the bus home, he'd stayed over, and that morning he'd made me breakfast in bed.
He'd made me tea and toast. I'd been so surprised that he'd done something so ordinary for me that I hadn't complained about the tea or the bland white bread. He'd brought the stuff with him, he'd told me proudly. He'd been shopping.
"Tea is tea," he'd told me, when I'd asked him what sort of tea it was. When I pointed out that I had four caddies of loose tea, he'd shrugged dismissively. "Teabags are so easy, Anna, none of the mess of the loose stuff." None of the taste, either, I'd thought to myself, but I hadn't complained at the time.
I should have realised. The useless, nasty, evil bastard! I added despoiling my teapot to his list of crimes. Why hadn't I spotted the signs? My boyfriend—no, my ex-boyfriend—drank rubbish tea!
I filled the teapot with boiling water, swished it around, and tipped it down the sink. I then repeated the process twice more and sniffed the pot, making certain that there were no remnants of the horrible cheap tea in the pot. Satisfied, I added a generous measure of leaves, poured in the water, waited three minutes, and poured.
As I sipped the Earl Grey, I placed my tablet on the kitchen table, propped it up, and flicked it on to the BBC Breakfast News. I watched the world's troubles and tried to persuade myself that lots of people were worse off than I was. It was true, they were; but it didn't make me feel any better. My problem, I realised, was that I still had feelings for him. I couldn't figure out why.
At nine o'clock, my flatmate, Vicki, peered cautiously into the kitchen. When she saw that I wasn't crying, she decided to try to cheer me up with her usual ridiculous platitudes. I like Vicki, I really do; I wouldn't be sharing a flat with her if I didn't. She's kind and clever, but sometimes she drives me crazy. And she's completely bloody useless in a crisis. She began with, 'How are you feeling?' before moving on to, 'It could be worse.' Things went downhill from there.
Unable to cope with Vicki's determined cheerfulness, I used Mum as an excuse to escape into my bedroom. I took my tablet with me, stood it upright, and made the call home. Mum answered almost immediately, and she instantly registered the red rims around my eyes.
'Hello, Anna,' she began.
'Hi, Mum. I got back safely last night,' I said, trying not to burst into tears. 'Sorry, I didn't get in touch to let you know.'
Mum turned away from the screen and said, 'Out, Mike.'
'But…' I heard Dad begin.
Mum shook her head and stared at my dad with an expression I could read even though I could see little more than the back of her head. Our daughter needs her mother, the look said. She silently shooed Dad away. He was out of the webcam's field of vision, but in my mind's eye, I saw him shrugging worriedly, and ambling out of the living room.
'What's wrong, Annabel?' Mum asked cautiously.
She'd used my Sunday name, another indication that she recognised that this was serious. I opened my mouth and the story of my return—a day earlier than I'd told Simon—and of my deciding to surprise my boyfriend came gushing out. The tear-filled tale of Simon's infidelity was much edited, but I knew that Mum was capable of reading between the lines, she would easily fill in the gaps.
'I don't know what to do,' I admitted.
'I know how difficult it is when you fall out with your boyfriend, Anna. I still remember when Joe and I split up…' Joe, I thought, who the hell is Joe? I couldn't imagine Mum ever being with someone other than Dad. '…it was hard for me; I was unhappy for a few weeks, and I blamed myself. But it didn't take long for me to realise that I was better off out of it. You've found out the hard way that you can't trust Simon. If you can't trust him once, then you will never be able to trust him again. Things have changed between you, and you've got to accept that. A clean break is the best thing for you to do.'
'But Simon…' I began.
Mum sighed. 'I probably shouldn't tell you this, Anna, but I never liked him. He always seemed a bit up himself.'
'If you ever bring him back here, he'll be in trouble anyway,' Dad shouted from somewhere off screen. I should have realised that, despite being shooed from the room, he'd be listening. Mum shushed him, motioned him away, and shook her head.
'I think I'm still in love with him,' I said quietly.
'Ah,' Mum said. She stared thoughtfully at me, and I watched as she gathered her thoughts. It was several seconds before she continued.
'Here's what I think, and please don't get upset with me. It's possible that you are, but perhaps you're simply in love with the idea of being in love with him,' Mum told me. 'You've invested a lot of time and effort in your relationship with Simon, and one of the things you hate most in the world, Anna, is discovering that you've wasted your effort.'
I stared at her, shocked.
'It's true, Anna. You know it is.'
As I thought about it, I realised that she was right.
'We can advise, but we can't interfere, Anna. You're in Sheffield, and we're almost two hundred miles away. You can come back home, if you want to…'
'I'm not going to run away!' I said.
Mum smiled. 'That's my girl. Do what you think is best. Just remember, we're always here for you, and we'll respect your decision, no matter what it is.' I heard a grumble somewhere in the distance. 'We will, won't we, Mike?' she said firmly.
'I suppose…' I heard Dad grudgingly.
Eventually, Mum managed to change the subject, and got me talking about my coursework. By the time we finally said goodbye, I was feeling a lot better.
While I'd been talking to Mum, I'd heard the doorbell, and I'd heard Vicki answer. When I re-entered the lounge, there was a massive bunch of flowers waiting for me.
'Special delivery,' said Vicki excitedly, her voice tinged with jealousy. 'The woman from the florists said that it was the biggest bouquet anyone has ever ordered from her.'
I stared at the bouquet and the message attached to it, and immediately wondered if I should reconsider my decision. Despite Mum's advice, should I give him a second chance?
"I love you. Please forgive me, Simon", the card declared. There was a restaurant invitation attached to the flowers, too. Simon was offering to take me to a very expensive restaurant in Peak District.
Vicki was no help, at least not at first. I stared at the flowers; it appeared that Simon had sent me the entire contents of a florist's shop, wrapped in a big purple bow.
'You and Simon have been a bit up and down for a while, Anna. But you're really well suited, and I'm sure that you could still make a go of it with him,' Vicki said earnestly.
'I suppose so…' I began uncertainly. Then she told me.
'And, after all, it isn't the first time…' Vicki added. Her tone was caring and consoling.
Although my mind was still in turmoil, the meaning of her final sentence was the killing blow, the fatal dagger strike to my heart. My uncertainty was elbowed out of the way by my anger. 'Wait… what?' I said. 'It isn't the first time? What the fuck do you mean, it isn't the first time?'
The colour drained from Vicki's face, her mouth opened and closed like a feeding goldfish, and with no more sound. I watched as she tried to decide what to say next.
'The truth, Vicki,' I ordered sharply.
'When he went to Kos with Pete and Matt last summer, they … met … some girls,' said Vicki, blurting out another awful truth in her panic. 'Matt told me in confidence. He made me promise not to tell anyone.' She looked fearfully into my face. Vicki keeps her promises. I'd always thought that was her great strength. 'I thought you knew, Anna. I thought he'd told you. They met three girls while they were there.'
I shook my head in despair. I was trying to forget, but her words forced the events of previous evening back into my mind.
I'd caught the tram from Meadowhall and lugged my holdall and rucksack up the hill to Simon's house. I could have phoned and asked him to collect me, but I hadn't. I'd wanted to surprise him.
And I'd surprised him all right. He was on the sofa in his living room, trousers around his ankles, and she was underneath him. At first, I was incapable of registering what I was seeing. Embarrassed, I'd even said, 'Oops, sorry,' before my shocked brain realised exactly what I was witnessing. The girl had been embarrassed, too. She couldn't look at me.
It seemed like forever, but it was probably only a fraction of a second before the reality of the situation hit, and I exploded. I screamed, swore, and broke down and cried, all at the same time. When Simon stopped repeating 'Sorry,' over and over again, and instead tried: 'You should have phoned instead of just turning up unannounced.' I picked up an almost empty bottle of wine from the table and threw it at him. Fortunately, it missed and hit the wall.
The worst part was that I couldn't get the image of him shagging her out of my head.
'I didn't know, Vicki. But I do now! I will fucking kill him,' I said, seething. 'I hate him. He's a fucking stuck-up, self absorbed, two-timing, arrogant fucking ponce!' And I'll still see him in lectures every day, I realised.
'A lot of the other girls think that he's good-looking, and he's very rich,' Vicki reminded me. 'Yes, he's … made a mistake, but he has said that he's sorry. No one has ever sent me flowers like that.' She stared longingly across the room. 'He's trying to apologise.'
'Apologise! How can he possibly apologise?' I refused to allow my anger to abate. 'I caught him fucking another woman! And he has never even mentioned the holiday bird to me, either. He's a fucking two-timing fucking snooty fucking bastard. It's not a fucking second chance he wants from me, Vicki; it's a fucking third chance. And he doesn't get one of those.' I glared at her. 'Simon Faversham can take a flying fuck at the moon. I hope he crashes his fucking Audi. Fucking twat!'
'You came back home a day early,' said Vicki unthinkingly. Her face was full of panic as she tried—and failed—to calm me down.
Her words were enough to make me explode, but I bit my tongue. Jesus! My friend and flatmate could be so dim sometimes. Did she really think that it would have been okay if I hadn't found out?
'And, besides, I might be wrong about Chantelle. Maybe it was just one night, not the entire holiday,' said Vicki as she haplessly continued to pour oil, not water, onto the flames of my fury.
'Chantelle,' I said, completely losing control. 'Chan-fucking-telle! You even know her fucking name! Why the fuck didn't you fucking tell me?'
'I didn't want to upset you,' said Vicki tearfully. 'And please don't swear so much, Anna.'
'You didn't want to upset me?' I shouted. 'You've just told me that last night wasn't the first time my boyfriend cheated on me. How the fu…' Her expression stopped me in mid-flow. Vicki, bless her, was a sensitive soul, she didn't like swearing, and she hated it when bad things happened. My flatmate was close to breaking point, I realised. She didn't cope very well with unpleasantness. If I wasn't careful, I would end up comforting her. This isn't her fault, I reminded myself; at least, not much.
I sighed. 'Sorry, Vicki. I should be shouting at him, not you. I didn't get much sleep last night, and I'm still stressing. I can't cope with this, and neither can you. You need some peace and quiet, and I need to think.' I made my decision. 'I'm going out. I don't know when I'll be back.'
There was only one place I could go to work off my anger, only one place where I could get some uninterrupted thinking time. I went to my room, pulled out a costume, a hat, and a towel, and rammed them into my sports bag.
I said my farewell with fake cheeriness to a still worried, but slightly calmer Vicki. 'See you later.' I called as I walked past the living room.
'Don't do anything silly,' she begged.
'I'm not going to drown myself,' I told her. 'I'm not even going to drown my sorrows. I'm going to tire myself out, that's all. Bye, Vicki.' I gave her a false smile and left.
The flat Vicki and I were renting was in Crookesmoor, and it was almost two miles from Pond's Forge. As I walked, I considered going to the Goodwin, to the university pool, but there was a chance I might meet someone I knew, or someone who knew me. I might even meet Simon, as that was where he played squash. I didn't want conversation, or questions, or sympathy, so I headed past the university buildings, aiming for the city centre. It was a walk I hadn't done in many months.
I hadn't done much walking since I met Simon. I hadn't needed to walk. I'd bagged the rich student with the flash car and the big house his mummy and daddy had bought for him.
Anger, confusion, and fear swirled through my head as I walked. Part of me was still panicking. If I finished with him, then I wouldn't have a boyfriend. If! My God, was I that pathetic? I didn't need Simon. I didn't need anyone.
Could I ever trust him again? I knew the answer to that question: I couldn't. But that didn't matter, because it was over, wasn't it? My brain was being treacherous. I'd helped him find his house; I'd met his parents, and I'd even tried to like them, despite their obvious annoyance at my accent. We'd been together for so long.
Was he really the one? Six months earlier, I'd have said yes without hesitation. But six months before that, only a few months into our relationship, it appeared that he'd been unfaithful for the first time.
'Fuck,' I said loudly. The woman walking past me frowned in disapproval.
Why was I finding it so difficult? Everything I was feeling was Simon's fault. It was his fault that I'd been crying. It was his fault that I was unhappy. I was about halfway down Broad Lane when it began to rain. I decided to blame Simon for that, too. The wanker!
It began as a shower. But a few minutes after the first few innocent spots had spattered around me, saying "don't mind us, we're nothing to worry about", the sky rapidly darkened. I quickened my pace as the raindrops rapidly increased in both size and frequency. Soon, the water was bouncing off the pavements and gurgling down the gutters. It was only September, but the rain was cold. I watched as everyone else put up umbrellas or dashed for shelter, but I didn't join them. As I trudged determinedly on, the wet streets became almost deserted. I was getting soaked, but that didn't matter, because I was going to get wet soon anyway. My hair was plastered to my skull, and the rain was running down my neck. My almost knee-length sweatshirt was sodden, while my thick tights were cold and wet on my legs.
I'd wasted eighteen months of my life on a stupid boy! It was over. I could use the water to wash him away.
I stamped in a puddle and revelled in the splash. It brought back memories of the hills of my childhood, the hills where my parents still lived. I remembered those days, and I smiled at good times, magical times. Things are so much easier when you're six, or eight, or ten. I jumped into the next puddle with both feet, making a satisfying splash, so I did the same in the next puddle, and the next.
Then Simon sneaked back into my head again. He had said that he loved me so many times, and he'd even written it on the card I'd received with the flowers. Until then, I'd always believed him when he said it. Perhaps he meant it this time, too. Perhaps this was simply an aberration. Perhaps I should hear his side of the story; after all, I hadn't allowed him to explain, I had simply exploded.
I remembered our first meeting. 'Can I borrow your lecture notes, Annabel? You know that I don't fully understand the intricacies of property law. You're so much better at that stuff than me.
Since then, we'd studied together almost every day. 'Can you take a look at this essay for me? I think that it's okay, but…' He had such a nice smile, and he was polite, and he made me laugh. Should I go back and see what he had to say for himself? Was he really sorry? Was I the one being unreasonable?
Damn him! I really did need to keep away from him. Why the hell was I making excuses for him? I found another puddle and, again, I jumped into it with both feet. It was a lot deeper than I thought, and I created a huge splash.
'Thanks very much,' said a man's voice sarcastically. Because of me, he was wet up to the knees. In my distracted state, I hadn't noticed him. He had been standing in a bus shelter, hidden behind the advertisement as he waited for the rain to stop. From the rapidly approaching blue sky, I knew he wouldn't be waiting for much longer.
'Sor…' I stopped mid-stride and mid-apology and stared at him. He was tall, slim, broad-shouldered, and even-featured. His hair was a shade too dark to be called truly ginger, and his clear hazel eyes were bright and full of curiosity. I looked into his freckle-dusted face and realised that he was struggling to recognise me.
That was what gave me the advantage over him. I added the clues together. His "do I know you?" look, his hair and freckles, and those eyes; they were enough. I was suddenly certain that I was facing another stupid, hurtful, and nasty boy from my past. But that was ridiculous; it couldn't be him. Why on earth would he be in Sheffield?
'The word you're looking for is sorry, not sor…' he told me. He was still staring inquisitively at me, and he was smiling that all-purpose "who-the-hell-are-you" smile. The smile people use when they're certain they know you, but they can't put a name to your face. I saw no reason to enlighten him.
'I am very sorry for splashing you,' I told him. Turning away from him, I continued on my way. I was approaching a junction, and as I prepared to turn the corner, I looked back up the street. He was still staring at me, still trying to figure out who I was. That was when I was certain that I knew who he was, and that he did not recognise me. Of course, my hair was a little darker, and a lot shorter, than the last time he'd seen me. 'Unless, of course, your name is James Sirius Potter, in which case you deserved that soaking, and lot more besides.'
That was it! He left the bus shelter and splashed through the puddles after me. I quickened my pace, deliberately ignoring his calls.
'Who are you?' he shouted. 'I thought I recognised you. You obviously know me, but I can't remember where we've met.'
'Where we met doesn't matter,' I called over my shoulder. 'You've obviously forgotten me, but I'll always remember James Sirius Potter. You're just another horrible boy.'
He dashed in front of me, turned, and tried to get me to stop and talk. I was having none of it, so I dodged past him. For a second, I thought that he was going to grab my arm, but he took one look at my face and decided against it. Instead, he turned and matched his stride with mine. I quickened my pace and tried to ignore him.
'Were we at school together?' he asked. His face creased in concentration and I realised that the fact that he couldn't place me was really annoying him.
'We might have been,' I said evasively, beginning to enjoy his confusion. 'You really have no idea, do you? Please don't tell me that you've moved to Sheffield, James. The last thing I need is another fucking idiot-boy hanging around.'
'I've never been here before. I'm going to the University to visit my cousin this afternoon, and I thought that I'd take a look around the city first,' he told me. He had looked so shocked by my casual swearing that I wondered why he was prolonging the conversation.
'Rosie, Hugo, or one of the other ones?' I asked, trying to confuse him.
He burst out laughing. 'Is this some sort of wind-up?' he asked. 'If you know Rose and Hugo, then you must have been at school with me.'
'Possibly,' I admitted.
'That's a relief; why didn't you say? I've been so careful what I've been saying. I was beginning to think that you were just some random Muggle I'd met once! Who are you? Which house were you in? You're not a Gryffindor.' Then his face fell. 'You're not from the Prophet, are you?'
By then, I'd reached Pond's Forge. As he followed me into the reception area, I turned on him.
'Muggle? Gryffindor? I'd forgotten all of the random nonsense words you used to use. You're a fucking cretin, James Potter! You haven't changed at all,' I told him. 'You're still talking shite, still telling ridiculous stories. You were exactly the same at school.'
He stared at me, and then he looked around the building as if he hadn't realised where he was. I strolled over to the reception desk.
'One student swim,' I told the receptionist, as I dripped on the floor. I flashed my student card at her, while making sure that he couldn't see it. It didn't matter, because we were standing in a swimming pool, and the location finally gave me away.
'Oh, shit,' he said. 'You're little Annie Charlton.' I saw the horror and guilt in his eyes. He stood there staring, his mouth open. He said nothing. James Potter, the boy who never shut up, was lost for words.
'Little?' I said scornfully, staring him straight in the eyes. 'I'm five foot nine, and my name is Annabel. My friends call me Anna, and you're not my friend, little Jimmy Pee; I don't think you ever were! So you can spin on this, you arse!' I gave him the finger, turned on my heels, and headed for the stairs to the changing rooms.
'I was an arse,' he said quietly. 'But that was years ago, Annie … Annabel. I was thirteen and stupid.'
'Thirteen and stupid or twenty-three and stupid—what's the difference?' I asked him.
'Ten years,' he said promptly. 'You might think that I'm still stupid, but at least Mrs Green taught me how to do my addings-up, and my take-aways. Although I'm not quite twenty-three yet, Ann…Annabel.'
So, I couldn't render him speechless and sad for long. He still had a flippant answer for everything. Well, almost everything. I tried to hide my smile, strode ahead of him and dashed down the stairs to the changing rooms.
I pulled open the changing room door and pointed at the sign. 'Goodbye, James Potter,' I said. 'Women's changing! You can't come in.'
'I really am sorry,' he said as I closed the door. His face seemed to show genuine sorrow and regret, his eyes were creased in remembrance. Did he really regret the hurt he'd inflicted on me such a long time ago?
James Potter's sad face was still in my mind while I was peeling off my sodden clothes and stuffing them into a locker. The memories came flooding back.
My brother, Henry, had been James' best friend from the day they started school. They weren't even five at the time. I'd grown up with the Potters. I was younger than Al and older than Lily, fitting neatly into the school year between them.
I wondered how Al Potter was doing. He'd always been a nice little boy. He'd been quiet and gentle, not like James, or my brother Henry, or, for that matter, Lily. I would never find out, I realised with some regret, because I was certain that I'd never see James again.
I'd packed my Speedo open back kneeskin suit. Once black, it was old, chlorine faded, and well past its best, but it was the one I always wore for training sessions. As I pulled it on and adjusted it, I realised that it was a long time since I'd been in a pool. Simon didn't see the point in swimming; he'd told me that I always smelled of chlorine. Over the previous eighteen months, since we'd got together, I'd gone from eight hours of swimming a week to six, and then three, and then down to one. And now, I realised, I hadn't been in the water for three months.
Simon had persuaded me to take up squash instead. He'd had years of practice at the game, and he regularly and invariably trounced me. I had got fed up of being beaten, so I'd taken lessons. Finally, after our second year exams, a week before I went home, I'd managed to win a match. That was when I discovered what a bad loser he was. He barely spoke to me for days afterwards.
I silently cursed Simon. Tucking my hair into my white cap and pulling on my goggles, I strode out onto the poolside and looked around for a quiet lane.
There was only one person in the backstroke lane, an elderly woman who was at the far side of the pool, so I decided to warm up with a few lengths on my back. I counted my strokes; I had no alternative, as there were no turn flags to help me. But my strokes were short, and I rolled into my turn much too early. I was forced to fly-kick my way to the wall in order to tumble.
When I broke surface, I concentrated on increasing the power of my pulls. I was woefully out of practice. As I stared at the ceiling and felt the water surging around me, I fantasised about setting fire to Simon's car, and about kicking him in the balls. As I searched for another ignominy to heap on him, an idea hit me. I wondered what it would be like to immerse both Simon, and James Potter, in a vat of itching powder. I gleefully imagined their skin turning red and erupting in painful boils, and I hit my hand on the poolside. My angry thoughts of revenge had obviously increased my backstroke speed.
Treading water, I looked at the back of my hand. It was tingling, and there was no doubt that I'd have a bruise. Deciding that I'd had enough of the backstroke, I ducked under the lane rope and joined the freestyle swimmers. As I pulled myself through the water, my confusion and anger finally began to fade.
I would be single. I could be selfish. I could eat when and where I wanted; I could swim whenever I wanted. I could be Anna, not Simon's girlfriend. I could decide what to do. I could go out clubbing and get drunk, like I had with Simon, or I could stay at home with a nice cup of tea and a good book.
Ponds Forge is a fifty metre pool, but for some reason, they usually put the lane ropes in from side to side, making it instead a very wide twenty-five metre pool. As I swam, I slipped naturally into my old training routine, choosing one of my toughest, fifteen hundred metres freestyle. I ploughed steadily up and down, feeling better with every metre I swam.
At least at the beginning of my swim, I did.
Every hundred metres, I checked my split times on the clock, and after the first four hundred metres, I began my practice drills. It was amazing how easily I slipped back into my old training routine, and it was horrifying how uncoordinated I was. I did okay for a while, but my stamina had gone. While I was concentrating on my drills, my pace slowed dramatically.
I always attempted to finish a session by sprinting the final two hundred. When I finally reached that point, I tried, but I could barely pick up my pace. I was running on annoyance at my lack of fitness, determination to reach the target I'd set myself, and spite. This was definitely Simon's fault. Why had he persuaded me to stop swimming? When I'd started going out with him, I'd been close to making the university team. Now, it would take me months to regain that level of fitness. Squash simply wasn't the same.
When I finally finished my stroke was all to hell, and I was so knackered that I could barely pull myself from the pool. I realised that I'd be stiff and sore the following day. If I was going to get back in shape, I needed to get back to my old training routine. I staggered towards the changing room, feeling very light-headed and a little faint. I'd been stupid; I knew I wasn't fit, and yet I'd pushed myself too hard. I needed to take it easy, to build slowly. I should have brought myself something to drink, too.
It wasn't until I walked into the changing room that I realised I'd forgotten more than a drink; I'd brought neither shower gel nor shampoo with me, either. Fortunately, someone had discarded an almost empty shower gel in one corner of the showers. By prising off the top, and holding the container under the shower head, I managed to get a pathetic amount of lather into my hair. I wasn't really clean, but I'd managed to remove most of the chlorine from my hair. As I stood under the shower, I forgot all about Simon and instead remembered James Potter.
I remembered Al first. I could still see his horror-filled face. It was the last thing I saw before my eyelids swelled to the point where I was blind. The last thing I remember hearing was James' pathetic excuse: 'It was only a joke,' as his extremely angry father shouted louder than I'd ever heard him shout before.
It was my eleventh birthday, and all of my school friends were there. It was Easter, so Al and James, both back home from their public school, had come to the party along with Lily and their parents. James, tall, good-looking and thirteen, had taken me aside and given me "a special present for a special girl". I'd been giddily excited when I'd unwrapped it. According to the label, it was "diamond dust" body sparkle, lipstick, and mascara. The pretty little girl in the picture on the box was sparkling like a vampire in the sunlight (I know—I was eleven—that's my only excuse). I had dashed up to my room and applied the stuff liberally. Soon, my arms and face were sparkling like the girl in the photo. I'd only just got back downstairs when whatever James had put in it started to work. My skin came up in an extremely itchy rash, and my eyelids and lips developed huge and painful boils. I began to scream, but the boils on my lips soon made that impossible, and all I could do was whimper in pain.
I can't really remember much after that. I know that Mum carefully carried me upstairs, and James' mum followed, apologising profusely as she tried to help Mum wash the stuff off me.
That was the beginning and end of my birthday party. The guests were all sent home. Mr Potter had taken his crying kids away and returned, remarkably quickly, with an antidote. He had arrived just in time, as, after half an hour under the shower, I was still mewling in agony and Mum was about to take me to hospital.
Mrs Potter helped Mum to apply the antidote. The cream had worked almost immediately on the painful boils on my eyes and lips. The disfiguring rash on my arms and face, however, had taken a lot longer to fade. I spent the evening of my birthday standing in the bathroom in my underwear, trying not to scratch my blotchy red skin, and crying. I refused to leave the house for a week, until every last blemish had gone.
Mr and Mrs Potter tried to apologise. Mr Potter told Dad that he was grounding James until the summer holidays. Nevertheless, my dad never really forgave James. He refused to allow Henry to visit his friend over the summer holidays. Two or three years earlier, Henry would have raised merry hell about that. But by then neither James nor Al, were at Middle School. The Potter boys were both attending a private school in Scotland and, as a consequence of their separation, Henry and James were slowly drifting apart. Henry had a new best friend at Middle School, and James had found one in his new school, too.
Mum and Mrs Potter had been friends for years, but my eleventh birthday party almost broke them apart. They made up, but it was never the same, and we slowly stopped seeing them. When Lily, too, went off to private school, the Potters moved back to London. They apparently visited their country home occasionally during the summer, but we never saw them again.
Lost in memories, I'd been vigorously towelling myself dry. My skin was tingling from my efforts. Cursing James Potter, I began to get dressed. When I pulled my clothes from the locker, I was astonished to discover that they were remarkably dry and even almost warm to the touch. It was as if they'd been freshly laundered. Surely the changing room wasn't that warm?
I packed my bag and considered my options. What now? I wondered. I was absolutely knackered, and my legs were like jelly. I didn't feel like walking home. Not only was it a long walk, and mostly uphill, but I still wasn't ready to face Vicki. I checked my watch—it was only eleven in the morning. I picked up my bag and headed up the stairs, still uncertain where I was going.
When I reached the top of the stairs James Potter was leaning against a pillar in the reception area. He'd obviously been waiting for me. I wondered if he'd been on the spectator balcony, watching me in the water. He bounced rapidly towards me, smiling that silly smile of his and looking like a gawky teenager, not a man of twenty-two.