The Drop Off
My husband saw her first.
I'd been facing backwards, twisted uncomfortably in my seat and with my fully-extended seatbelt digging into my shoulder. My discomfort had been enforced on me by Henry, who had been prodding his little sister until she squealed. I'd given him a mild scolding, and had succeeded by creating a barrier between them using his school satchel. As a consequence, Henry was glaring at me with that sullen "how dare you stop me from doing what I want" expression of his.
'Blimey,' said Mike admiringly. 'D'you think that's real?'
As I turned to face forwards I caught a brief glimpse of the object of his appreciation. The woman was not tall, but she was curvy; she wore tight denim shorts and a white t-shirt. Her bright red hair was a twisted rope tied with two black bows; one was at the nape of her neck, the second was a little above the small of her back, and it danced and swayed as she walked. She was holding a small boy firmly by the hand and pushing a buggy. The boy was wearing grey shorts and a turquoise sweat shirt, the same sweatshirt that Henry was wearing, the uniform of Harbottle Primary School. I doubted that Mike had even noticed him.
'The bum?' I asked, knowing my husband. 'Definitely real.'
'I was talking about the hair,' Mike protested as we drove past.
'No idea,' I replied.
I turned and looked back; the buggy was a double. The woman was striding determinedly down the road towards Harbottle and the village school. She was a stranger, a newcomer to our little corner of the hills, but I instantly decided that I wasn't going to like her. She had no right to a figure like that after three kids.
The Alwinton to Harbottle road is narrow, and there are no footpaths until you get into the village. The woman had been walking down the road, facing the oncoming traffic. Not that there was anything coming. We don't see many cars on our roads and anything larger than a car is very unusual, unless the army are on the ranges.
We'd been crossing the River Coquet when Annie had started protesting about her brother's prodding and we had just reached the castle car park when Mike pointed the woman out. I wondered where she had come from. I know everyone on our side of the river, in Alwinton and the surrounding farms. On this side, the south side, we had only passed two properties and I know who lives there, too. There was nowhere else.
Unless ... unless someone had actually bought Drakeshaugh. The old farmhouse had been derelict for years, but as I considered the possibilities I realised that there was nowhere else the redheaded woman could have come from. Drakeshaugh was a mile and a half from Harbottle, up the track alongside Drakestone Burn. If she was from Drakeshaugh she had walked along the old and rutted track, and then along this road, while pushing two kids and holding on to the third.
'Anyone mentioned any newcomers to you?' I asked.
'You keep up with the gossip, Jacqui, not me,' said Mike. 'We'll find out soon enough; she'll be taking the lad to school. He was in uniform.' My husband had noticed the boy. Sometimes I underestimate him. After nine years of marriage I should know better.
We swept around the bends and into the single street that is Harbottle village. The stranger was lost in the distance behind us.
'I could drop you off at the school, go back, and offer her a lift,' Mike suggested.
'Michael Charlton,' I told him as we slowed down. 'You are here for your son's first full day at school, not to pick up curvy redheaded strangers.'
'I could combine the two,' he said with a grin.
'What're you talking 'bout?' Henry asked us from the back seat.
'We've just seen a lady who we don't know walking towards the school, Henry,' I informed my son. 'She has a little boy with her; he might be a new friend for you. That would be nice, wouldn't it?'
'No,' Henry told me firmly.
I kept the sun visor down at all times, and I kept the flap which conceals the vanity mirror up. By careful use of the vanity mirror and the passenger door mirror, I could watch my children without them realising what I was doing. Henry was convinced that I really did have eyes in the back of my head. My son was close to tears this morning, poor little lad. He was worried, nervous. It was a big day, his first full day at school.
Henry had been going to school for half days, mornings only, since Easter. He had settled in nicely, even made friends with a couple of the older children, but the six week summer break had been long enough to make him forget all about that. We'd had tears and tantrums from the moment we'd roused him this morning and I was extremely thankful that Mike had arranged to start work late.
My husband had insisted on helping, he wanted to be with Henry for the start of his first full day at school. He pulled up at the end of the long line of cars already parked on the street. We were almost out of the village; we'd only just passed the school warning sign.
'Here we are, Henny,' Mike announced.
'Hen-ry,' Henry corrected his father crossly.
'You used to say Henny when you were a little boy,' Mike reminded him. 'Aren't you still a little boy?'
'No!' announced Henry importantly. 'I'm a big boy, I'm nearly five.'
'A big boy who's going to school for a whole day, like big boys do,' said Mike knowledgeably.
'I'm glad you're here,' I told my husband in an undertone. He grinned and winked at me.
I took my time getting out of the car, allowing Mike to walk around to lift Henry out from his seat onto the path. I leaned across Henry's car seat and unbuckled Annie from hers. As I settled her on my hip, I watched Henry take his daddy's hand. Mike was doing a good job; he was playing the ignorant fool, keeping Henry's mind on other things.
'Is it this way?' Mike asked, leading Henry in the wrong direction, away from the school gate, and allowing our son to scold him and lead him into the school yard. Mike says that sometimes acting daft is the most sensible thing to do; it certainly works with Henry a lot of the time. I smiled as I watched them walk down the path towards the gate, and noticed that Henry didn't have his bag.
I checked the back seat and realised that Henry had knocked his school bag onto the floor. When I picked it up, I cursed. It was dripping. The carton of fresh orange juice I'd packed for him was leaking, that was obvious from the smell. I swore under my breath, lifted the bag out from the car and dropped it onto the path. The bag was a sticky mess, and now, so was my hand.
'Wassamatter, Mammy?' my daughter asked.
I lifted her into Henry's car seat and ordered, 'Don't move, Annie; I need to clear this up.'
I squatted down on the verge and began to unzip the bag.
'Need any help?' someone asked. Her accent gave her away instantly, she certainly wasn't local. It was a southern drawl; West Country I thought. A few more words and I'd be certain.
I looked towards the voice. There was the boy in the school sweatshirt. He was auburn-haired and freckle faced and he was looking rather worried, not unlike Henry. There, too, was the buggy. It was a muddy three-wheeled off-roader. Two children sat side by side in the buggy. The younger was a toddler, eighteen months old I guessed; a girl with hair as bright a red as her mother's and tied into two bunches. The older child was perhaps three, and completely unlike the other two, he had a mop of unruly jet-black hair and bright green eyes.
Behind the buggy was a pair of sturdy, freckled and well-muscled legs. The woman's faded denim shorts were quite long, three or four inches above her knees and they did not seem so tight from the front, but as her white t-shirt was low-cut, my husband would probably find something else to attract his attention; two something elses.
Oblivious to my uncharitable thoughts, the freckle faced and red-headed stranger looked at me, smiled, and then waved at my daughter who sat patiently in the car seat. The woman's children looked at me as though they'd never seen another human being before.
'Are we there yet, Mummy?' the boy in school uniform asked her as I opened Henry's bag.
'Yes, James, we're there,' she told him.
Juice had dripped from Henry's lunch box and onto his coat, which was wet and sticky. Under the silent scrutiny of the woman and her three children I pulled out the coat and dropped it on the path before opening the lunch box and checking the contents. Henry's apple could be salvaged, if it were washed and dried it would be fine, but the rest of his lunch was ruined.
They were still there, watching and waiting. I glared at the woman; then remembered that she'd asked me a question; she'd offered to help, and I hadn't replied. I was horrified to realise that it was me, not her, who was being rude.
'Sorry, I don't think that you'll be able to help, but thank you very much for the offer,' I told the woman apologetically. 'My son's orange juice carton has leaked and his lunch is ruined.'
'Lunch?' The young woman looked worried. Her children simply continued to watch me. 'Isn't lunch provided? I thought that lunch was provided.'
'It is, if you've paid for it,' I told her. 'Have you?'
'I don't know,' the woman looked confused. 'Harry - my husband - made all of the arrangements. He was supposed to be here with me, but there's been a crisis at work and he had to go.'
'Want Daddy,' the dark-haired boy announced. His ears had pricked up at the word "Harry".
'He's at work, Al,' the woman said exasperatedly.
'We can talk to Mrs Wilson, the early-years teacher,' I reassured her. 'She'll know whether ... James (I struggled, but remembered what she'd called the auburn-haired boy) ... has his name down for school dinners, and I'll need to buy Henry lunch, too, now.'
'Thanks,' the woman gave me a pleasant and very grateful smile.
'Would you like me to dry your son's coat?' she asked. 'I'm Ginny Potter, by the way.'
She held out freckled hand. I shook the hand she'd proffered. She had a surprisingly firm grip. I'm a farmer's daughter; my grip is good, but hers was better.
'Jacqui Charlton,' I said, warily telling her my name. 'I've heard all of the jokes, so don't bother.' She looked at me blankly. She's a Southerner, I remembered, so she's probably never heard of Jackie Charlton.
'I don't think that you'll be able to do anything with this,' I told her as I carefully examined Henry's jacket. Thanks to the sticky juice, it also had grit sticking to it. She simply smiled, reached under the buggy and pulled out a magenta towel. Taking the coat from me, she wrapped it inside the towel and rubbed vigorously. When she lifted the coat out it was clean and dry, and it wasn't sticky.
'How on earth did you do that?' I asked.
'This ...' Ginny Potter stopped and thought carefully before starting again.
'George ... my brother ... one of my brothers ... is a bit of an ... inventor. His son, Fred, is the scruffiest, stickiest kid in the family, although he's got a lot of competition, especially from this one.' She ruffled her eldest son's hair affectionately. 'George ... invented ... this towel. It's ... specially treated ... and a sort of test version.'
'I'd buy one,' I told her.
'Don't be so sure. I wouldn't be surprised if everything I clean with it suddenly turns magenta later.' She smiled, then realised what she'd said. She looked horror-struck at her words and covered her mouth with her hand.
'Oh, shi... da... bother,' she exclaimed, moving from one uncompleted swear word to another and doing the "not in front of the children" word shift I often do myself. 'If it does, let me know and I'll replace the coat. I'm sure we'll see each other at the school gates again.'
'Oi!' my husband shouted.
'Coming, Mike,' I called.
'My husband,' I explained. 'It's our son's first full day so he decided to take time off work.'
'So did Harry, but something came up,' Ginny told me. She was looking rather bewildered and I suddenly felt sorry for her.
'Come with me, Ginny, I'll introduce you to some of the other mums. This ...' I lifted Annie out of the car, '...is my daughter, Annie.'
I put Annie down, grabbed her hand tightly, and we toddled slowly towards the school gates alongside the Potters.
'Say hello to Mrs Potter, Annie,' I suggested.
'Ello,' Annie mumbled shyly.
'Hello, Annie. These three are James, Al, and Lily. Say hello to Mrs Charlton and Annie, kids.'
'Hello,' the two younger ones chorused.
'Hello to Mrs Charlton and Annie.' James scowled.
'James, behave yourself,' Ginny scolded.
'But I don't wanna go to school!' James told his mother.
'Neither does my son, Henry,' I told him, 'Perhaps you could keep each other company.'
'That would be nice, wouldn't it?' Ginny asked.
'No,' James announced.
Before Ginny could speak we'd reached the gates, where my husband and son stood waiting. I performed the introductions. Mike was on his best behaviour, thank goodness, and he graciously agreed to look after Annie, Al and Lily while Ginny and I took our sons into school.
James and Henry were assessing each other carefully. James was looking wonderingly at the impressively painted school yard and, as we strolled up towards the school, the two boys began talking quietly to each other. Henry, I noticed, was explaining things. Suddenly my son wasn't the new kid. He had found someone even newer.
'It's quite an old building,' Ginny observed.
'More than a hundred and fifty years old, early Victorian, but it's been well modernised, don't worry,' I reassured her.
'The school I went to was a lot older,' she said with a smile.
'Really?' I began, but my son interrupted us.
'James's having school dinners,' Henry announced.
'Would you like school dinners, too?' I asked, desperately praying for the right answer.
'Yes,' he announced.
'Well, if that's what you want, Henry, we'll organise it now.' I winked at Ginny, who smiled a knowing reply.
So we took our sons into the school, spoke to Mrs Wilson and watched her settle the boys into the small class of four-, five- and six-year-olds.
It did not take long for Mrs Wilson to set them to work with paint and paper. When they turned their backs on us and started to mix paints, we left.
'We can't offer you a lift, sorry, Ginny,' Mike said when we left the school. 'Five seats for six people, I'm afraid that you won't all fit. Have you been here long? Just moved in? Where are you living? What does your husband do?'
'Oh, for goodness sake, Mike, don't be so nosey. How can she answer all of those questions?' I glared at Mike and he shut up. I could see that Ginny was on her guard the instant he began firing questions at her. Realising that Mike's blundering questions meant I'd not find anything out, I decided to tell her about us.
'Mike works in Morpeth, he's a solicitor and land agent,' I told Ginny. 'I was born and bred up here. Mike's the newcomer, originally from the big city, Newcastle. Eight years and he's still not used to our quiet country ways.'
We were passing the huddle of other Mums at the school gate when I spoke. Mary Saville called across to me. She was looking curiously at Ginny and would want to know "absolutely everything, darling" about her.
'Just as well we are out here in the "quiet country",' boomed Mary, waving a newspaper, 'I certainly wouldn't want to be in Sheffield at the moment.'
The headline read: "Werewolf Killer Writes: I'll keep killing."
Ginny frowned grimly and walked on, ignoring Mary.
'Daddy gone Se'feed,' Al Potter announced, looking up in interest at the mention of the city.
'Yes, he has, Al. He's there on business,' Ginny said. 'Thanks for your help, Jacqui, but I'd best get these two home. We have a lot to do today.'
'Thank you,' I told her. 'Henry has a clean coat and, I hope, a new friend. He was very nervous this morning.'
'So was James. It will be nice if he can mix with some Mu... some children who he isn't related to.' She looked a little sad as she spoke. I knew how she was feeling.
'Kids have got to go to school. It's good for them, even if they are a miss around the house,' I reassured her.
'That's what Harry says, too, I hope that he's right. Bye, Jacqui, bye, Mike. I'm sure I'll see you again.' With that, she turned and pushed the buggy containing her two younger children back down the road.
I didn't have a chance to discuss Ginny Potter with Mike because Mary bustled over.
'A mysterious stranger, tell me everything, darling,' she began. I was a severe disappointment to her and I was glad when, after a couple of minutes, Mike helped me to escape by reminding me that he needed to take me home in order to get to work.