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The Casual Vacancy

J. K. Rowling

Part Two Chapter IV



  Samantha's dinner invitation to Kay had been motivated by a mixture of vengefulness and boredom. She saw it as retaliation against Miles, who was always busy with schemes in which he gave her no say but with which he expected her to co-operate; she wanted to see how he liked it when she arranged things without consulting him. Then she would be stealing a march on Maureen and Shirley, those nosy old crones, who were so fascinated by Gavin's private affairs but knew next to nothing about the relationship between him and his London girlfriend. Finally, it would afford her another opportunity to sharpen her claws on Gavin for being pusillanimous and indecisive about his love life: she might talk about weddings in front of Kay or say how nice it was to see Gavin making a commitment at last.

  However, her plans for the discomfiture of others gave Samantha less pleasure than she had hoped. When on Saturday morning she told Miles what she had done, he reacted with suspicious enthusiasm.

  'Great, yeah, we haven't had Gavin round for ages. And nice for you to get to know Kay. '


  'Well, you always got on with Lisa, didn't you?'

  'Miles, I hated Lisa. '

  'Well, OK . . . maybe you'll like Kay better!'

  She glared at him, wondering where all this good humour was coming from. Lexie and Libby, home for the weekend and cooped up in the house because of the rain, were watching a music DVD in the sitting room; a guitar-laden ballad blared through to the kitchen where their parents stood talking.

  'Listen,' said Miles, brandishing his mobile, 'Aubrey wants to have a talk with me about the council. I've just called Dad, and the Fawleys have invited us all to dinner tonight at Sweetlove - '

  'No thanks,' said Samantha, cutting him off. She was suddenly full of a fury she could barely explain, even to herself. She walked out of the room.

  They argued in low voices all over the house through the day, trying not to spoil their daughters' weekend. Samantha refused to change her mind or to discuss her reasons. Miles, afraid of getting angry at her, was alternately conciliatory and cold.

  'How do you think it's going to look if you don't come?' he said at ten to eight that evening, standing in the doorway of the sitting room, ready to leave, wearing a suit and tie.

  'It's nothing to do with me, Miles,' Samantha said. 'You're the one running for office. '

  She liked watching him dither. She knew that he was terrified of being late, yet wondering whether he could still persuade her to go with him.

  'You know they'll be expecting both of us. '

  'Really? Nobody sent me an invitation. '

  'Oh, come off it, Sam, you know they meant - they took it for granted - '

  'More fool them, then. I've told you, I don't fancy it. You'd better hurry. You don't want to keep Mummy and Daddy waiting. '

  He left. She listened to the car reversing out of the drive, then went into the kitchen, opened a bottle of wine and brought it back into the sitting room with a glass. She kept picturing Howard, Shirley and Miles all having dinner together at Sweetlove House. It would surely be the first orgasm Shirley had had in years.

  Her thoughts swerved irresistibly to what her accountant had said to her during the week. Profits were way down, whatever she had pretended to Howard. The accountant had actually suggested closing the shop and concentrating on the online side of the business. This would be an admission of failure that Samantha was not prepared to make. For one thing, Shirley would love it if the shop closed; she had been a bitch about it from the start. I'm sorry, Sam, it's not really my taste . . . just a teeny bit over the top . . . But Samantha loved her little red and black shop in Yarvil; loved getting away from Pagford every day, chatting to customers, gossiping with Carly, her assistant. Her world would be tiny without the shop she had nurtured for fourteen years; it would contract, in short, to Pagford.

  (Pagford, bloody Pagford. Samantha had never meant to live here. She and Miles had planned a year out before starting work, a round-the-world trip. They had their itinerary mapped out, their visas ready. Samantha had dreamed about walking barefoot and hand in hand on long white Australian beaches. And then she had found out that she was pregnant.

  She had come down to visit him at 'Ambleside', a day after she had taken the pregnancy test, one week after their graduation. They were supposed to be leaving for Singapore in eight days' time.

  Samantha had not wanted to tell Miles in his parents' house; she was afraid that they would overhear. Shirley seemed to be behind every door Samantha opened in the bungalow.

  So she waited until they were sitting at a dark corner table in the Black Canon. She remembered the rigid line of Miles' jaw when she told him; he seemed, in some indefinable way, to become older as the news hit him.

  He did not speak for several petrified seconds. Then he said, 'Right. We'll get married. '

  He told her that he had already bought her a ring, that he had been planning to propose somewhere good, somewhere like the top of Ayers Rock. Sure enough, when they got back to the bungalow, he unearthed the little box from where he had already hidden it in his rucksack. It was a small solitaire diamond from a jeweller's in Yarvil; he had bought it with some of the money his grandmother had left him. Samantha had sat on the edge of Miles' bed and cried and cried. They had married three months later. )

  Alone with her bottle of wine, Samantha turned on the television. It brought up the DVD Lexie and Libby had been watching: a frozen image of four young men singing to her in tight T-shirts; they looked barely out of their teens. She pressed play. After the boys finished their song, the DVD cut to an interview. Samantha slugged back her wine, watching the band joking with each other, then becoming earnest as they discussed how much they loved their fans. She thought that she would have known them as Americans even if the sound had been off. Their teeth were perfect.

  It grew late; she paused the DVD, went upstairs and told the girls to leave the PlayStation and go to bed; then she returned to the sitting room, where she was three-quarters of the way down the bottle of wine. She had not turned on the lamps. She pressed play and kept drinking. When the DVD finished, she put it back to the beginning and watched the bit she had missed.

  One of the boys appeared significantly more mature than the other three. He was broader across the shoulders; biceps bulged beneath the short sleeves of his T-shirt; he had a thick strong neck and a square jaw. Samantha watched him undulating, staring into the camera with a detached serious expression on his handsome face, which was all planes and angles and winged black eyebrows.

  She thought of sex with Miles. It had last happened three weeks previously. His performance was as predictable as a Masonic handshake. One of his favourite sayings was 'if it's not broke, don't fix it'.

  Samantha emptied the last of the bottle into her glass and imagined making love to the boy on the screen. Her breasts looked better in a bra these days; they spilled everywhere when she lay down; it made her feel flabby and awful. She pictured herself, forced back against a wall, one leg propped up, a dress pushed up to her waist and that strong dark boy with his jeans round his knees, thrusting in and out of her . . .

  With a lurch in the pit of her stomach that was almost like happiness, she heard the car turning back into the drive and the beams of the headlights swung around the dark sitting room.

  She fumbled with the controls to turn over to the news, which took her much longer than it ought to have done; she shoved the empty wine bottle under the sofa and clutched her almost empty glass as a prop. The front door opened and closed. Miles entered the room behind her.

  'Why are you sitting here in the dark?'

  He turned on a lamp and she glanced up at him. He was as well groomed as he had been when he left, except for the raindrops on the shoulders of his jacket.

  'How was dinner?'

  'Fine,' he said. 'You were missed. Aubrey and Julia were sorry you couldn't make it. '
  'Oh, I'm sure. And I'll bet your mother cried with disappointment. '

  He sat down in an armchair at right angles to her, staring at her. She pushed her hair out of her eyes.

  'What's this all about, Sam?'

  'If you don't know, Miles - '

  But she was not sure herself; or at least, she did not know how to condense this sprawling sense of ill-usage into a coherent accusation.

  'I can't see how me standing for the Parish Council - '

  'Oh, for God's sake, Miles!' she shouted, and was then slightly taken aback by how loud her voice was.

  'Explain to me, please,' he said, 'what possible difference it can make to you?'

  She glared at him, struggling to articulate it for his pedantic legal mind, which was like a fiddling pair of tweezers in the way that it seized on poor choices of word, yet so often failed to grasp the bigger picture. What could she say that he would understand? That she found Howard and Shirley's endless talk about the council boring as hell? That he was quite tedious enough already, with his endlessly retold anecdotes about the good old days back at the rugby club and his self-congratulatory stories about work, without adding pontifications about the Fields?

  'Well, I was under the impression,' said Samantha, in their dimly lit sitting room, 'that we had other plans. '

  'Like what?' said Miles. 'What are you talking about?'

  'We said,' Samantha articulated carefully over the rim of her trembling glass, 'that once the girls were out of school, we'd go travelling. We promised each other that, remember?'

  The formless rage and misery that had consumed her since Miles announced his intention to stand for the council had not once led her to mourn the year's travelling she had missed, but at this moment it seemed to her that that was the real problem; or at least, that it came closest to expressing both the antagonism and the yearning inside her.

  Miles seemed completely bewildered.

  'What are you talking about?'

  'When I got pregnant with Lexie,' Samantha said loudly, 'and we couldn't go travelling, and your bloody mother made us get married in double-quick time, and your father got you a job with Edward Collins, you said, we agreed, that we'd do it when the girls were grown up; we said we'd go away and do all the things we missed out on. '

  He shook his head slowly.

  'This is news to me,' he said. 'Where the hell has this come from?'

  'Miles, we were in the Black Canon. I told you I was pregnant, and you said - for Christ's sake, Miles - I told you I was pregnant, and you promised me, you promised - '

  'You want a holiday?' said Miles. 'Is that it? You want a holiday?'

  'No, Miles, I don't want a bloody holiday, I want - don't you remember? We said we'd take a year out and do it later, when the kids were grown up!'

  'Fine, then. ' He seemed unnerved, determined to brush her aside. 'Fine. When Libby's eighteen; in four years' time, we'll talk about it again. I don't see how me becoming a councillor affects any of this. '

  'Well, apart from the bloody boredom of listening to you and your parents whining about the Fields for the rest of our natural lives - '

  'Our natural lives?' he smirked. 'As opposed to - ?'

  'Piss off,' she spat. 'Don't be such a bloody smartarse, Miles, it might impress your mother - '

  'Well, frankly, I still don't see what the problem - '

  'The problem,' she shouted, 'is that this is about our future, Miles. Our future. And I don't want to bloody talk about it in four years' time, I want to talk about it now!'

  'I think you'd better eat something,' said Miles. He got to his feet. 'You've had enough to drink. '

  'Screw you, Miles!'

  'Sorry, if you're going to be abusive . . . '

  He turned and walked out of the room. She barely stopped herself throwing her wine glass after him.

  The council: if he got on it, he would never get off; he would never renounce his seat, the chance to be a proper Pagford big shot, like Howard. He was committing himself anew to Pagford, retaking his vows to the town of his birth, to a future quite different from the one he had promised his distraught new fiancee as she sat sobbing on his bed.

  When had they last talked about travelling the world? She was not sure. Years and years ago, perhaps, but tonight Samantha decided that she, at least, had never changed her mind. Yes, she had always expected that some day they would pack up and leave, in search of heat and freedom, half the globe away from Pagford, Shirley, Mollison and Lowe, the rain, the pettiness and the sameness. Perhaps she had not thought of the white sands of Australia and Singapore with longing for many years, but she would rather be there, even with her heavy thighs and her stretch marks, than here, trapped in Pagford, forced to watch as Miles turned slowly into Howard.

  She slumped back down on the sofa, groped for the controls, and switched back to Libby's DVD. The band, now in black and white, was walking slowly along a long empty beach, singing. The broad-shouldered boy's shirt was flapping open in the breeze. A fine trail of hair led from his navel down into his jeans.