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The Casual Vacancy

J. K. Rowling

Part Two Chapter III



  Gavin cooked for Kay at his house that evening, opening tins and crushing garlic with a sense of ill-usage.

  After a row, you had to say certain things to secure a truce: those were the rules, everyone knew that. Gavin had telephoned Kay from his car on the way back from Barry's burial and told her that he wished she had been there, that the whole day had been horrible and that he hoped he could see her that night. He considered these humble admissions no more or less than the price he had to pay for an evening of undemanding companionship.

  But Kay seemed to consider them more in the light of a down payment on a renegotiated contract. You missed me. You needed me when you were upset. You're sorry we didn't go as a couple. Well, let's not make that mistake again. There had been a certain complacency about the way she had treated him since; a briskness, a sense of renewed expectation.

  He was making spaghetti Bolognese tonight; he had deliberately omitted to buy a pudding or to lay the table in advance; he was at pains to show her that he had not made much of an effort. Kay seemed oblivious, even determined to take this casual attitude as a compliment. She sat at his small kitchen table, talking to him over the pitter-patter of rain on the skylight, her eyes wandering over the fixtures and fittings. She had not often been here.

  'I suppose Lisa chose this yellow, did she?'

  She was doing it again: breaking taboos, as though they had recently passed to a deeper level of intimacy. Gavin preferred not to talk about Lisa if he could avoid it; surely she knew that by now? He shook oregano onto the mince in his frying pan and said, 'No, this was all the previous owner. I haven't got round to changing it yet. '

  'Oh,' she said, sipping wine. 'Well, it's quite nice. A bit bland. '

  This rankled with Gavin, as, in his opinion, the interior of the Smithy was superior in every way to that of Ten Hope Street. He watched the pasta bubbling, keeping his back to her.

  'Guess what?' she said. 'I met Samantha Mollison this afternoon. '

  Gavin wheeled around; how did Kay even know what Samantha Mollison looked like?

  'Just outside the deli in the Square; I was on my way in to get this,' said Kay, clinking the wine bottle beside her with a flick of her nail. 'She asked me whether I was Gavin's girlfriend. '

  Kay said it archly, but actually she had been heartened by Samantha's choice of words, relieved to think that this was how Gavin described her to his friends.

  'And what did you say?'

  'I said - I said yes. '

  Her expression was crestfallen. Gavin had not meant to ask the question quite so aggressively. He would have given a lot to prevent Kay and Samantha ever meeting.

  'Anyway,' Kay proceeded with a slight edge to her voice, 'she's asked us for dinner next Friday. Week today. '

  'Oh, bloody hell,' said Gavin crossly.

  A lot of Kay's cheerfulness deserted her.

  'What's the problem?'

  'Nothing. It's - nothing,' he said, prodding the bubbling spaghetti. 'It's just that I see enough of Miles during work hours, to be honest. '

  It was what he had dreaded all along: that she would worm her way in and they would become Gavin-and-Kay, with a shared social circle, so that it would become progressively more difficult to excise her from his life. How had he let this happen? Why had he allowed her to move down here? Fury at himself mutated easily into anger with her. Why couldn't she realize how little he wanted her, and take herself off without forcing him to do the dirty? He drained the spaghetti in the sink, swearing under his breath as he speckled himself with boiling water.

  'You'd better call Miles and Samantha and tell them "no", then,' said Kay.

  Her voice had hardened. As was Gavin's deeply ingrained habit, he sought to deflect an imminent conflict and hoped that the future would look after itself.

  'No, no,' he said, dabbing at his wet shirt with a tea towel. 'We'll go. It's fine. We'll go. '

  But in his undisguised lack of enthusiasm, he sought to put down a marker to which he could refer, retrospectively. You knew I didn't want to go. No, I didn't enjoy it. No, I don't want it to happen again.

  They ate for several minutes in silence. Gavin was afraid that there would be another row, and that Kay would force him to discuss underlying issues again. He cast around for something to say, and so started telling her about Mary Fairbrother and the life insurance company.

  'They're being real bastards,' he said. 'He was heavily insured, but their lawyers are looking for a way not to pay out. They're trying to make out he didn't make a full disclosure. '

  'In what way?'

  'Well, an uncle died of an aneurysm, too. Mary swears Barry told the insurance agent that when he signed the policy, but it's nowhere in the notes. Presumably the bloke didn't realize it can be a genetic thing. I don't know that Barry did, come to . . . '

  Gavin's voice broke. Horrified and embarrassed, he bowed his flushing face over his plate. There was a hard chunk of grief in his throat and he couldn't shift it. Kay's chair legs scraped on the floor; he hoped that she was off to the bathroom, but then felt her arms around his shoulders, drawing him to her. Without thinking, he put a single arm around her, too.

  It was so good to be held. If only their relationship could be distilled into simple, wordless gestures of comfort. Why had humans ever learned to talk?

  He had dribbled snot onto the back of her top.

  'Sorry,' he said thickly, wiping it away with his napkin.

  He withdrew from her and blew his nose. She dragged her chair to sit beside him and put a hand on his arm. He liked her so much better when she was silent, and her face was soft and concerned, as it was now.

  'I still can't . . . he was a good bloke,' he said. 'Barry. He was a good bloke. '

  'Yes, everyone says that about him,' said Kay.

  She had never been allowed to meet this famous Barry Fairbrother, but she was intrigued by the show of emotion from Gavin, and by the person who had caused it.

  'Was he funny?' she asked, because she could imagine Gavin in thrall to a comedian, to a rowdy ringleader, propping up the bar.

  'Yeah, I s'pose. Well, not particularly. Normal. He liked a laugh . . . but he was just such a . . . such a nice bloke. He liked people, you know?'

  She waited, but Gavin did not seem able to elucidate further on the niceness of Barry.

  'And the kids . . . and Mary . . . poor Mary . . . God, you've got no idea. '

  Kay continued to pat his arm gently, but her sympathy had chilled a little. No idea, she thought, what it was to be alone? No idea how hard it was to be left in sole charge of a family? Where was his pity for her, Kay?

  'They were really happy,' said Gavin, in a cracked voice. 'She's in pieces. '

  Wordlessly, Kay stroked his arm, reflecting that she had never been able to afford to go to pieces.

  'I'm all right,' he said, wiping his nose on his napkin and picking up his fork. By the smallest of twitches, he indicated that she should remove her hand.