'Hello, Annabel,' said James cheerfully. 'I've…'
'I thought I'd told you to fuck off,' I said, with as much venom as my tired mind and body could muster.
'I will,' he said, chastened but still determinedly upbeat. 'But not until you drink one of these.'
He thrust two bottles at me; one was a bright blue energy drink, the other was a bottle of water. I was surprised by his thoughtfulness, but I wasn't prepared to give him an easy time.
'If you think that I'm ever going to accept another gift from you, you're an even bigger wanker than I thought you were,' I told him.
I was elated by his reaction. He slumped, deflated, in front of my eyes. I'd managed to puncture him, and suddenly, his bounce was gone. He stood flat and lifeless, still holding the plastic bottles like some sort of offering.
'I deserved that,' he said regretfully.
'Yeah, so fuck off,' I told him. I watched him wince as I swore once again, but he didn't give up.
'Would it help to persuade you if I drank some first?' he asked. 'You've swum yourself to exhaustion, Annabel, and you didn't take a drink onto poolside with you. Hydration, remember? That's what Mr Fox, and your mum, used to say.'
I was startled by his sudden naming of our old swimming coach, but I rallied quickly. 'It's none of your business what I do, Potter. So why don't you just fuck off and leave me alone?' I asked. My swearing was making him cringe.
'Because of your face,' he said quietly. 'Because of the look you gave me when you recognised me. It was—I didn't like it—splashing me wasn't punishment enough, that was obvious—I really hurt you, didn't I?'
Astonished, I nodded.
'You ruined my birthday party and gave me a rash which didn't fade for weeks. I was embarrassed and in agony! Why did you do it?' I said, taking the opportunity to ask him the question I'd wanted answering for years.
'I made the stuff myself. I wanted to do something to impress my Uncle George. I needed to test it, but Al and Lily were always too suspicious of me, and so was everyone at school.' As he stared sadly into my face, his eyes seemed to be focussed on the past; it was as if he was seeing me as that screaming eleven-year-old.
'You were an easy target, no other reason,' he admitted. Remorse was visible in the corners of his eyes and I could see it creeping across his face. It appeared that the memories were torturing him, and I wondered if I could find the right words to actually make him cry.
'Pathetic, wasn't I?' he asked.
'Yes,' I told him.
He nodded in sad and silent agreement. I simply glared at him, enjoying his discomfort. I watched this knuckles whiten as he clenched the bottles tightly. He slumped, and squirmed in discomfort under my unforgiving gaze. Eventually, he continued.
'I'd be lying to you if I said that I've been wracked with guilt for all these years, Annabel. To be honest, I'd almost forgotten it, forgotten you; I'd even almost forgotten Henry, despite the great times we had when we were little. But—like I said—the expression on your face after you'd accidentally splashed me; bloody hell that worried me. I had no idea who you were, but you'd obviously recognised me, and you really hated me. It wasn't until we got here, and I finally figured out who you were, that I finally understood why. I'm really sorry, Annabel.'
I stared at him. James Potter was apologising to me, really apologising. I tried to take pleasure from it, but so many years after the event, there was little comfort to be had.
'I was punished, you know,' James told me. 'At the time, I thought Dad was being so unreasonable, so did Mum. They argued about it. Mum thought that Dad was being much too hard on me.'
'Punished?' I asked.
'I was in the school … hockey team. Dad took away my stick and wrote to the Headmistress telling her that I was not allowed to play. I missed the last game of the year; my house team lost the game, and the cup. The rest of the team hated me for it. They all blamed me, but I blamed Dad. I shouldn't have; he was right, I deserved it. I missed the opportunity to travel to France and play for the school team against a French school, too.'
'Good,' I said harshly. I tried to harden my heart. But the James before me was a lost and sad little boy. I had forced him to confront something he'd forgotten. If he was faking his remorse, he was doing an extremely good job of it. He looked so ashamed of himself that I had to force myself not to step forwards and hug him.
'I sat and watched you swimming, Annie,' he admitted. 'You've been out of the water for a long time, haven't you? It's obvious from your stroke. And you set yourself a punishing target. I lost count; what did you do, fifteen hundred?'
'You've done a lot of exercise, a lot more than you should have, I suspect. Now drink something. Replenish those fluids. It isn't poisoned or anything. Watch!' he said.
He opened both bottles. Upending the energy drink first, he tipped some of the blue liquid into his mouth, and grimaced. 'That is truly horrible,' he said. He then did the same with the water. 'Choose one, or take both, but please drink something,' he begged.
I took the water from him. 'You can drink that,' I told him.
He shook his head. 'It's vile; I'd rather not,' he said.
I narrowed my eyes and glared at him.
'Ah, payback time, nine years later,' he said. He gave me a rueful smile, shrugged in resignation, wrinkled his nose, and took three huge gulps. When he stopped and pulled a disgusted face, the bottle was half-empty. 'That's even worse than a Gurdyroot infusion.'
'Gurdyroot?' I asked, sighing at his use of yet another nonsense word.
He shrugged and smiled. 'I don't suppose you remember my aunt Luna?' he asked.
'Of course I remember her. No one who's ever met your "aunt" Luna could possibly forget her, could they?' I said. 'She wasn't really your aunt, just a friend of your mum and dad. Blonde hair, staring eyes, completely bonkers, and absolutely no dress sense,' I smiled at the memory of the eccentric and flamboyant woman.
'That's her,' he said, laughing. 'She hasn't changed. I have no idea what's in Aunt Luna's Gurdyroot infusion. She claims it's good for you, but it's been our measure of nasty tastes for years.'
I drank the water he'd given me. I'd meant to sip it daintily, but he was right. I should have taken a drink onto the poolside. I soon found that I'd finished it.
'Want another one?' he asked. 'I'll buy one for you. I'll even drink another one of these, if you insist. He waved the half empty bottle of blue stuff at me. 'Or would you rather have a cuppa? I would love a cuppa. Tea might wash away this vile taste.'
James was a remorseful puppy, begging for forgiveness. I no longer wanted to swear at him, but I had no idea what I did want from him.
'I'll pay,' he offered. 'How's Henry? How are your parents? I'd like to know.'
That was his winning card. I was overcome with curiosity myself. I wanted to know about Al and Lily. I looked over to the café and was suddenly ravenous. I hadn't eaten since the sandwich I'd had on the Supercoach from Newcastle the previous afternoon.
'Earl Grey tea, no milk, no sugar, and a bacon and egg butty with brown sauce,' I ordered.
At least breakfast would keep me away from my flat for a while longer. I certainly didn't feel at all guilty about letting him buy me breakfast. There were a lot of ways I could make him pay for what he'd done, and one of them was to make him literally pay.
'Does anyone actually put milk or sugar in Earl Grey?' he asked, shuddering at the idea. He stared into my eyes, looking concerned. 'No pre-swim breakfast?'
I shook my head.
'No breakfast, and angry enough to swim yourself to exhaustion,' he observed thoughtfully. He stared into my face, and I found myself caught in his gaze. His eyes were bright hazel; there were flashes of gold in them, where the green segued seamlessly into the brown. I could see him thinking, and I heard him sigh in relief.
'It's more than me, isn't it? I hope that you don't think I'm big-headed. I knew you were angry, and I thought that I was the reason behind all of your anger. I'm not, am I? There's something else bothering you, and I'm simply the person you could vent your spleen upon. I suppose that I should be grateful.' He tried a cautious smile. 'At least you didn't take it out on someone who didn't deserve it. Do you want to talk about it?'
'No.' I shook my head again. 'You can tell me all about Lily and Al, especially Al. I always thought that he was much nicer than you.'
James chuckled. 'He was. He probably still is,' he admitted. 'We can catch up, can't we?'
I nodded, and staggered. Finally, my sleepless night, and my exhausting swim were catching up with me.
'You should sit down,' he said.
I took the energy drink from his hands and walked over to an empty table. Taking the chair facing the counter, I watched as James walked over to the self-service counter, picked up a tray, and began to fill my order. Two girls at an adjacent table were also assessing him. They obviously liked what they saw. James was a couple of inches taller than me and smartly dressed. He was wearing charcoal grey trousers and a pale blue short-sleeved shirt. He moved with a confident grace, and I had to admit that he was pleasing to the eye. As he ordered, James said something to the plump middle-aged lady behind the counter, and she laughed.
'Brown or white bap?' he shouted across to me.
'Brown, of course,' I said. 'It's the healthy option.' His face creased into the brightest of smiles.
As I sat, I wondered what I'd achieved with my swim. I ached everywhere, inside and out, but I had accomplished something, I now knew that I was definitely going to finish with Simon. I was single.
I took a sip of the energy drink. James was right; it was a sticky glucose and sugar drink of the sort you could tell was rotting your teeth with every sip. 'I'd rather have an Irn Bru,' I muttered to myself, but I was so thirsty that I finished it anyway. As I examined the empty bottle, I realised that it was the brand I'd always insisted on drinking at the junior swimming competitions we'd attended. At one time I'd actually liked this stuff.
I stared curiously at James as he pushed the tray along to the till. He'd never appeared to pay much attention to me at the competitions. I'd sat with the girls, and he'd sat with the boys. Perhaps his choice of drink was mere coincidence.
Whatever James said when he paid made the checkout woman smile, too. When he turned to face me, his demeanour changed. Balancing the laden tray on one hand, James minced over to the table, every inch of him exuding the style of a waiter in a very posh restaurant.
'Your breakfast, Modom,' he said through pursed lips. 'One bacon and egg butty, in a very healthy brown bap, and a pot of Earl Grey's finest tea.' He identified each item as he placed them in front of me, keeping the tray balanced on one hand as he did so.
'Thank you,' I said politely, trying not to smile. That had always been the problem with James; he could always make you laugh, make you forget how horrible he'd been.
He placed another pot of tea in front of the chair opposite mine and sat.
'You've worked as a waiter,' I told him.
'For a few months, I've worked in a lot of places for a few months. They always find me out, eventually,' he admitted. 'Shall I pour? You can't leave Earl Grey to stew; it ruins the flavour.'
I nodded, because I was busy eating the butty. As he poured the tea, I bit into the bun and burst the egg. A mix of yolk and brown sauce dribbled onto my chin.
'I forgot to get us serviettes,' he said. He was on his feet instantly.
He grabbed at least half-a-dozen serviettes from the dispenser. The thirteen-year-old James I remembered wasn't this thoughtful. I was surprised, but also reminded of my useless big brother. An immature fool until he got his first job, and then, suddenly, Henry was Mr Sensible; he'd even started saving up to buy himself a flat.
James handed me one of the serviettes. I took it gratefully and concentrated on chewing the large bite of sandwich while wiping my chin.
'You've grown up,' he said, pouring his own tea.
'That's what happens,' I told him. 'We all get older. Mum was fifty in March. We had a big birthday party for her.' And I took Simon with me, and he met Mum and Dad, and all of their relatives and friends, and he's in pretty much every photograph, I thought gloomily.
'Cheer up, Annie. Fifty isn't old,' said James, misunderstanding the reason for my expression. He grinned. 'At least, that's what my Aunt Fleur told everyone on her last birthday.'
'I suppose,' I said, not bothering to correct him about the reason for my despondency. I tried to change the subject. 'Do you still swim?'
'I stopped swimming for a few years when I went to school, but I started training again about five years ago. It's the only thing I haven't given up on after a few months,' he admitted. 'I go swimming four nights a week, although I joined a triathlon club, not a swimming club.'
'I've thought about that option myself,' I admitted. 'But I'm not much of a runner.'
'Cycling is my weak link,' said James. We talked about sports until I'd finished the butty, and then James asked the inevitable question. 'How is Henry?'
'He was driving Mum and Dad crazy for a while,' I said. 'He didn't do as well as he should have at school, and in the end he simply stopped going. Mum and Dad found out, eventually. They were furious with him, and he was in a lot of trouble with them until he got a job; he's working in a Nissan Dealership, he's now their electric car expert. It turns out that he's more hands-on than academic, and he really loves what he does. What about Al, and Lily, and Rosie and Hugo, for that matter?'
'Al's working for Dad, and so is Hugo. I can't say more than that. Official Secrets Act, remember?'
I nodded. James' dad had a job in National security. Counter-terrorism, so far as I could remember. It was all very secret and mysterious.
'Al's got a girlfriend; she's called Violet, and they seem to be pretty serious. They've been together for years, since Vi was fifteen, in fact. Lily's living in Wales, on Anglesea. Unlike me, she stuck with … hockey, and she plays for a local team. She's just got herself a new boyfriend, Andy Jones. He's older than me, and he's got a son who'll be four very soon. Mum and Dad don't know about him yet. It's going to be fun when Dad finds out.
Rosie is the reason I'm here. She's at the University of Sheffield. She got her degree at Warwick—maths, but she's moved up here to do a Doctorate. Don't ask me any more than that; it's something to do with unreal and imaginary numbers, string theory and quantum mechanics. She says it's the mathematics of how impossible things happen. Her mum's very excited by it.'
We talked for over an hour, about friends and family and what they, and we, were doing. James had been through a string of jobs—drifting—he admitted. But he believed that he had finally found his vocation. He was working as a journalist. He thought that he'd finally found something he really wanted to do, he assured me. That was when I admitted that I was doing a law degree, and that I hoped to specialise in human rights law.
I was in mid-flow when one of the café staff cleared the table and began scrubbing it clean despite our presence.
Looking around, I realised that the place was full. There were no empty tables and we we'd been finished for a while. As we weren't eating or drinking; they were trying to tell us that they wanted us to leave.
'We'd better go,' I said.
'Okay,' he said. 'Are you doing anything now?'
I shook my head.
'I've never been to Sheffield before. Would you like to be my guide to the city?'
'Why not?' I agreed. Anything was better than returning to my flat, and James seemed to be genuinely interested in my opinions on the re-introduction of the European Convention on Human Rights.
We walked and talked for over an hour. The weather could not have been more different from when I'd arrived at the pool. The sun was shining, only the deepest of puddles remained, and even they were little more than damp reminders of the morning's rain.
I took him to the Peace Garden and the Winter Garden, and at a little after one o'clock, he bought me a salad lunch in Leopold Square. That was when he told me about Kristen, the girl he'd split up with two months earlier, and that was when I told him about Simon. He was incensed on my behalf.
'If you were my girl…' he began angrily.
'Aren't you supposed to be meeting Rose for lunch?' I remembered, interrupting him.
'Damn, I'm late! I'll put her off,' he said, pulling out a mirror-like wood-effect phone from his pocket. I'd never seen anything like it. He simply touched the screen and said, 'Rose.'
'One o'clock, you told me, James,' Rose's voice carried across the table. 'You promised! You are without a doubt the least reliable…'
'Something's come up, Rose,' he interrupted. 'You'll never guess who I've just met.'
I urgently shook my head, and then wondered why I didn't want him to tell her. He touched the screen again and pressed the phone to his ear. I could no longer hear Rose's side of the conversation, but I listened to his side and smiled.
'I'm not telling you,' he said. 'You'll have to guess.'
'No, I'm not telling,' he said, grinning at me and winking. 'Okay, she's a girl, and she's at Sheffield University, just like you.'
'No, she's not doing Maths.'
'Well, that's all right, then, isn't it? I've done the right thing for once, even if it's by accident. You really don't want your daftest cousin playing gooseberry; do you, Rosie-posy?'
'Only third daftest? Who?'
'Okay, I'll concede the gold medal to Louis, but Lucy?'
'Did she really?' James laughed.
'Is he good-looking?'
'Well, you enjoy yourself, Rosie-posy. I'll call round and see you later and, provided that you're nice to me, I won't drop you in it with your dad at Grandma's, a week on Sunday. Bye.' He put the phone back into his pocket and grinned at me.
'Rose has been asked out to lunch herself, by a fellow student,' said James. 'He's a physicist who is working with her tutor. He's approaching her theories from a testable, practical perspective.'
'And is he good-looking?' I asked.
'He's a genius, apparently,' said James. 'And that is the only thing which matters to Rose, which is probably just as well. I think she's pleased that I've cancelled. After all, three's a crowd, and I'm really very good at cramping her style.'
'And Al's, too, I imagine,' I said.
James laughed. 'Not any more,' he said. 'These days, he just frowns at me and says, "Oh, grow up, James". So does Vi—his girlfriend, and she's only eighteen!'
James' face had changed and his voice had deepened as he quoted his brother. I could see the little Al I remembered in the way James had reset his shoulders and subtly changed his posture.
'Good for him,' I said. 'You were really quite horrible to him when we were little, you know. You and Henry were always picking on him because he was always so friendly towards us girls.'
'If I'd known you were going to grow up tall, blonde, and gorgeous, I'd have been a lot friendlier to you, too,' said James.
I stared at him. He was looking at me hopefully, waiting for me to accept his compliment.
'So, by that logic, it's okay to be horrible to ugly people, is it?' I asked.
'That's not what I meant,' he protested.
'It's what you said,' I told him. I stared into his face with what I hoped was a concerned look. 'If that's what you think, then you can't complain when I tell you that's a really bad case of acne you've got, ginge!'
James laughed. 'That's me told,' he admitted. 'You're right, sorry. I shouldn't be horrible to anyone, unless they deserve it. And you didn't. Will you ever forgive me?'
His eyes were bright and hopeful. Behind him, a middle-aged woman sitting diagonally opposite me had been shamelessly listening in to our conversation; she caught my eye and nodded.
'I'll think about it,' I said, trying not to smile.
'That's a start,' he said, sounding extremely pleased.
I sipped my tea and stared at him. We were sharing a pot of Darjeeling which we'd agreed was of dubious quality. I said nothing.
'What shall we do this afternoon, Annie?' he asked.
'What do you want to do?' I said.
'I'm happy simply enjoying your company,' he said. Despite myself, I believed him. 'How are your parents?'
As I began to tell him, he signalled the waitress for the bill. I was beginning to feel guilty about letting him pay, but James ignored my protests and handed over the cash.
We walked out from the city centre, past the Faculty of Law, and out to the Botanical Gardens. We had almost reached the Gardens when I realised that he was carrying my sports bag for me. He must have picked it up when we'd finished our lunch. Despite my requests, he refused to hand it over.
'I've carried it this far,' he told me, and I can see the sign ahead. 'What's the point in me letting you carry it for the final few yards?'
'It would make me feel better,' I said.
'Really?' he asked. 'Why not look on it as an additional punishment for me?'
I made a grab for the bag, but he moved it away, and I found myself dancing around him, chasing my stolen possessions in exactly the same way I'd done when I was little. I stopped, folded my arms, stuck out my bottom lip, and stamped my foot. They were the actions of a six-year-old Annie, and the effect on James was instant.
'Sorry, Annie,' he said. He held out the bag.
'Changed my mind,' I said with mock petulance. 'You can carry it for me.'
We stared at each other. I'm certain that, like me, he was remembering the good times we'd shared. He burst out laughing, and so did I. We were still laughing when we walked into the gardens, where we found a bench in the sunshine and talked and talked. We talked about his parents, and mine, and about our hopes for the future.
The afternoon flew over, and we were still talking when a man came up and politely reminded us that the park was closing. I checked my watch. It was almost six. Where had the day gone?
'I really should go home,' I said.
'Will you let me take you to dinner tonight?' he asked. 'I'll take you somewhere nice. You'll have to tell me where, of course.'
'No,' I said, despite the fact that I really wanted to say yes.
'Why not?' he demanded.
'I'm not dressed for it,' I said, grasping for an excuse.
'You're going home; you can get changed,' he told me. 'If, after today, you want me to leave you alone, you can simply tell me to eff off.'
'I don't want you to "eff off", as you so politely put it,' I said, giving in to the inevitable.
'Great,' he said. 'So where are we dining tonight, Miss Charlton?'
'Ms Charlton,' I said, correcting him. 'I know a really good little family run pizza place, Mr Potter.'
'James,' he said.
I sighed. 'Okay, you can call me Anna,' I told him.
'I'd rather call you Annie,' he said. 'You'll always be Annie to me. Shall I wait in the city centre for you, or…' he tailed off hopefully.
'This way,' I said. We strolled up the hill towards my flat.
'We could go swimming together,' suggested James. 'We could go to early morning training, just like when we were little. It would do us both good.'
'Don't be stupid, James. You live in London,' I told him.
'I'll move,' he said. 'Have you got a spare room?'
'No,' I said.
'I could share yours,' he said.
'James Potter! What sort of girl do you take me for?' I asked.
'A girl I want to get to know a lot better,' he said.
'You are an idiot,' I said dismissively.
'I can be that, too, if you want me to be,' he said.
As we approached the flat, I saw movement in my bedroom window. That was when I noticed Simon's car. He was parked directly outside my front door. James seemed to sense my sudden tension.
'Problem?' he asked.
'That's Simon's car,' I said. As I was pointing it out, the front door opened and Simon came out. He strode rapidly down the street to meet us.
'What do you want me to do?' asked James. 'I can vanish if you want.'
'No,' I said. 'Just be yourself, James.'
I stared coolly at Simon as he approached. I felt nothing for him. He was pathetic. He was my past.
'Anna, darling, we've been so worried,' he began. 'Vicki didn't know where you'd gone, and you left your phone in the living room. Are you all right? Who is this?' Simon looked nervous and worried, and extremely curious about James.
'Me? James Potter,' said James, he proffered a friendly hand, which Simon didn't take. 'I'm an old friend of Annie's. I've known her since she was knee-high to a goblin, and I was once best mates with her big brother. I accidentally met her outside the swimming pool. Twas just a huge co-inky-dink, honest.'
I snorted with laughter. I hadn't heard James' mispronunciation of the word "coincidence" for a long time, but it brought more memories flooding back.
'We've been catching up on old times,' explained James.
'James, this is my ex-boyfriend, Simon Faversham,' I said. Simon's face fell. 'James is taking me out for a meal tonight, Simon. I'd be grateful if you could collect your stuff from my room. I'll be round to get my things tomorrow.'
'But…' Simon tried.
James silenced him with a glance. 'Best do it now, Simon,' he suggested.
'I hope that you're very happy together,' he snapped.
Simon glared at us, turned on his heels, and strode back to the house.
'So do I,' said James. He turned to face me, and gently placed his hands on my shoulders. 'If this was a film, this would be the part where I kiss you for the first time,' he added.
'Unless it's a tragedy, not a rom-com, in which case this is where I turn and walk away,' I told him. I hadn't showered properly, I suddenly realised. I'd spent the day with James Potter, but my hair was a mess, and I smelled of swimming pool.
'I think it's worth the risk,' he said, sliding his arms down my back and bringing his lips close to mine.
My choice was simple: stop him; or throw my arms around him.
I didn't stop him.