Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Casual Vacancy

J. K. Rowling

Part Two Chapter VI



  'The fuck have you done to your face? Come off the bike again?' asked Fats.

  'No,' said Andrew. 'Si-Pie hit me. I was trying to tell the stupid cunt he'd got it wrong about Fairbrother. '

  He and his father had been in the woodshed, filling the baskets that sat on either side of the wood-burner in the sitting room. Simon had hit Andrew around the head with a log, knocking him into the pile of wood, grazing his acne-covered cheek.

  D'you think you know more about what goes on than I do, you spotty little shit? If I hear you've breathed a word of what goes on in this house -

  I haven't -

  I'll fucking skin you alive, d'you hear me? How do you know Fairbrother wasn't on the fiddle too, eh? And the other fucker was the only one dumb enough to get caught?

  And then, whether out of pride or defiance, or because his fantasies of easy money had taken too strong a hold on his imagination to become dislodged by facts, Simon had sent in his application forms. Humiliation, for which the whole family would surely pay, was a certainty.

  Sabotage. Andrew brooded on the word. He wanted to bring his father crashing down from the heights to which his dreams of easy money had raised him, and he wanted to do it, if at all possible (for he preferred glory without death), in such a way that Simon would never know whose manoeuvrings had brought his ambitions to rubble.

  He confided in nobody, not even Fats. He told Fats nearly everything, but the few omissions were the vast topics, the ones that occupied nearly all his interior space. It was one thing to sit in Fats' room with hard-ons and look up 'girl-on-girl action' on the internet: quite another to confess how obsessively he pondered ways of engaging Gaia Bawden in conversation. Likewise, it was easy to sit in the Cubby Hole and call his father a cunt, but never would he have told how Simon's rages turned his hands cold and his stomach queasy.

  But then came the hour that changed everything. It started with nothing more than a yearning for nicotine and beauty. The rain had passed off at last, and the pale spring sun shone brightly on the fish-scale dirt on the school-bus windows as it jerked and lurched through the narrow streets of Pagford. Andrew was sitting near the back, unable to see Gaia, who was hemmed in at the front by Sukhvinder and the fatherless Fairbrother girls, newly returned to school. He had barely seen Gaia all day and faced a barren evening with only stale Facebook pictures to console him.

  As the bus approached Hope Street, it struck Andrew that neither of his parents was at home to notice his absence. Three cigarettes that Fats had given him resided in his inside pocket; and Gaia was getting up, holding tightly to the bar on the back of the seat, readying herself to descend, still talking to Sukhvinder Jawanda.

  Why not? Why not?

  So he got up too, swung his bag over his shoulder, and when the bus stopped walked briskly up the aisle after the two girls as they got out.

  'See you at home,' he threw out to a startled Paul as he passed.

  He reached the sunny pavement and the bus rumbled away. Lighting up, he watched Gaia and Sukhvinder over the top of his cupped hands. They were not heading towards Gaia's house in Hope Street, but ambling up towards the Square. Smoking and scowling slightly in unconscious imitation of the most unself-conscious person he knew - Fats - Andrew followed them, his eyes feasting on Gaia's copper-brown hair as it bounced on her shoulder blades, the swing of her skirt as her hips swayed beneath it.

  The two girls slowed down as they approached the Square, advancing towards Mollison and Lowe, which had the most impressive fa├žade of them all: blue and gold lettering across the front and four hanging baskets. Andrew hung back. The girls paused to examine a small white sign pasted to the window of the new cafe, then disappeared into the delicatessen.

  Andrew walked once around the Square, past the Black Canon and the George Hotel, and stopped at the sign. It was a hand-lettered advertisement for weekend staff.

  Hyperconscious of his acne, which was particularly virulent at the moment, he knocked out the end of his cigarette, put the long stub back into his pocket and followed Gaia and Sukhvinder inside.

  The girls were standing beside a little table piled high with boxed oatcakes and crackers, watching the enormous man in the deerstalker behind the counter talking to an elderly customer. Gaia looked around when the bell over the door tinkled.

  'Hi,' Andrew said, his mouth dry.

  'Hi,' she replied.

  Blinded by his own daring, Andrew walked nearer, and the school bag over his shoulder bumped into the revolving stand of guides to Pagford and Traditional West Country Cooking. He seized the stand and steadied it, then hastily lowered his bag.

  'You after a job?' Gaia asked him quietly, in her miraculous London accent.

  'Yeah,' he said. 'You?'

  She nodded.

  'Flag it up on the suggestion page, Eddie,' Howard was booming at the customer. 'Post it on the website, and I'll get it on the agenda for you. Pagford Parish Council - all one word - dot co, dot UK, slash, Suggestion Page. Or follow the link. Pagford . . . ' He reiterated slowly, as the man pulled out paper and a pen with a quivering hand '. . . Parish . . . '

  Howard's eyes flicked over the three teenagers waiting quietly beside the savoury biscuits. They were wearing the half-hearted uniform of Winterdown, which permitted so much laxity and variation that it was barely a uniform at all (unlike that of St Anne's, which comprised a neat tartan skirt and a blazer). For all that, the white girl was stunning; a precision-cut diamond set off by the plain Jawanda daughter, whose name Howard did not know, and a mouse-haired boy with violently erupted skin.

  The customer creaked out of the shop, the bell tinkled.

  'Can I help you?' Howard asked, his eyes on Gaia.

  'Yeah,' she said, moving forwards. 'Um. About the jobs. ' She pointed at the small sign in the window.

  'Ah, yes,' said Howard, beaming. His new weekend waiter had let him down a few days previously; thrown over the cafe for Yarvil and a supermarket job. 'Yes, yes. Fancy waitressing, do you? We're offering minimum wage - nine to half-past five, Saturdays - twelve to half-past five, Sundays. Opening two weeks from today; training provided. How old are you, my love?'

  She was perfect, perfect, exactly what he had been imagining: fresh-faced and curvy; he could just imagine her in a figure-hugging black dress with a lace-edged white apron. He would teach her to use the till, and show her around the stockroom; there would be a bit of banter, and perhaps a little bonus on days when the takings were up.

  Howard sidled out from behind the counter and, ignoring Sukhvinder and Andrew, took Gaia by the upper arm, and led her through the arch in the dividing wall. There were no tables and chairs there yet, but the counter had been installed and so had a tiled black and cream mural on the wall behind it, which showed the Square in Yesteryear. Crinolined women and men in top hats swarmed everywhere; a brougham carriage had drawn up outside a clearly marked Mollison and Lowe, and beside it was the little cafe, The Copper Kettle. The artist had improvised an ornamental pump instead of the war memorial.

  Andrew and Sukhvinder were left behind, awkward and vaguely antagonistic to each other.

  'Yes? Can I help you?'

  A stooping woman with a jet-black bouffant had emerged from out of a back room. Andrew and Sukhvinder muttered that they were waiting, and then Howard and Gaia reappeared in the archway. When he saw Maureen, Howard dropped Gaia's arm, which he had been holding absent-mindedly while he explained to her what a waitress's duties would be.

  'I might have found us some more help for the Kettle, Mo,' he said.

  'Oh, yes?' said Maureen, switching her hungry gaze to Gaia. 'Have you got experience?'

  But Howard boomed over her, telling Gaia all about the delicatessen and how he liked to think it was a bit of a Pagford institution, a bit of a landmark.

  'Thirty-five years, it's been,' said Howard, with a majestic disdain of his own m
ural. 'The young lady's new to town, Mo,' he added.

  'And you two are after jobs as well, are you?' Maureen asked Sukhvinder and Andrew.

  Sukhvinder shook her head; Andrew made an equivocal movement with his shoulders; but Gaia said, with her eyes on the girl, 'Go on. You said you might. '

  Howard considered Sukhvinder, who would most certainly not appear to advantage in a tight black dress and frilly apron; but his fertile and flexible mind was firing in all directions. A compliment to her father - something of a hold over her mother - an unasked favour granted; there were matters beyond the purely aesthetic that ought, perhaps, to be considered here.

  'Well, if we get the business we're expecting, we could probably do with two,' he said, scratching his chins with his eyes on Sukhvinder, who had blushed unattractively.

  'I don't . . . ' she said, but Gaia urged her.

  'Go on. Together. '

  Sukhvinder was flushed, and her eyes were watering.

  'I . . . '

  'Go on,' whispered Gaia.

  'I . . . all right. '

  'We'll give you a trial, then, Miss Jawanda,' said Howard.

  Doused in fear, Sukhvinder could hardly breathe. What would her mother say?

  'And I suppose you're wanting to be potboy, are you?' Howard boomed at Andrew.


  'It's heavy lifting we need, my friend,' said Howard, while Andrew blinked at him nonplussed: he had only read the large type at the top of the sign. 'Pallets into the stockroom, crates of milk up from the cellar and rubbish bagged up at the back. Proper manual labour. Do you think you can handle that?'

  'Yeah,' said Andrew. Would he be there when Gaia was there? That was all that mattered.

  'We'll need you early. Eight o'clock, probably. We'll say eight till three, and see how it goes. Trial period of two weeks. '

  'Yeah, fine,' said Andrew.

  'What's your name?'

  When Howard heard it, he raised his eyebrows.

  'Is your father Simon? Simon Price?'

  'Yeah. '

  Andrew was unnerved. Nobody knew who his father was, usually.

  Howard told the two girls to come back on Sunday afternoon, when the till was to be delivered, and he would be at liberty to instruct them; then, though he showed an inclination to keep Gaia in conversation, a customer entered, and the teenagers took their chance to slip outside.

  Andrew could think of nothing to say once they found themselves on the other side of the tinkling glass door; but before he could marshal his thoughts, Gaia threw him a careless 'bye', and walked away with Sukhvinder. Andrew lit up the second of Fats' three fags (this was no time for a half-smoked stub), which gave him an excuse to remain stationary while he watched her walk away into the lengthening shadows.

  'Why do they call him "Peanut", that boy?' Gaia asked Sukhvinder, once they were out of earshot of Andrew.

  'He's allergic,' said Sukhvinder. She was horrified at the prospect of telling Parminder what she had done. Her voice sounded like somebody else's. 'He nearly died at St Thomas's; somebody gave him one hidden in a marshmallow. '

  'Oh,' said Gaia. 'I thought it might be because he had a tiny dick. '

  She laughed, and so did Sukhvinder, forcing herself, as though jokes about penises were all she heard, day in, day out.

  Andrew saw them both glance back at him as they laughed, and knew that they were talking about him. The giggling might be a hopeful sign; he knew that much about girls, anyway. Grinning at nothing but the cooling air, he walked off, school bag over his shoulder, cigarette in his hand, across the Square towards Church Row, and thence to forty minutes of steep climbing up out of town to Hilltop House.

  The hedgerows were ghostly pale with white blossom in the dusk, blackthorn blooming on either side of him, celandine fringing the lane with tiny, glossy heart-shaped leaves. The smell of the flowers, the deep pleasure of the cigarette and the promise of weekends with Gaia; everything blended together into a glorious symphony of elation and beauty as Andrew puffed up the hill. The next time Simon said 'got a job, Pizza Face?' he would be able to say 'yes'. He was going to be Gaia Bawden's weekend workmate.

  And, to cap it all, he knew at last exactly how he might plunge an anonymous dagger straight between his father's shoulder blades.