Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Casual Vacancy

J. K. Rowling

Part Two Chapter VII



  Once the first impulse of spite had worn off, Samantha bitterly regretted inviting Gavin and Kay to dinner. She spent Friday morning joking with her assistant about the dreadful evening she was bound to have, but her mood plummeted once she had left Carly in charge of Over the Shoulder Boulder Holders (a name that had made Howard laugh so hard the first time he had heard it that it had brought on an asthma attack, and which made Shirley scowl whenever it was spoken in her presence). Driving back to Pagford ahead of the rush hour, so that she could shop for ingredients and start cooking, Samantha tried to cheer herself up by thinking of nasty questions to ask Gavin. Perhaps she might wonder aloud why Kay had not moved in with him: that would be a good one.

  Walking home from the Square with bulging Mollison and Lowe carrier bags in each hand, she came across Mary Fairbrother beside the cash-point machine in the wall of Barry's bank.

  'Mary, hi . . . how are you?'

  Mary was thin and pale, with grey patches around her eyes. Their conversation was stilted and strange. They had not spoken since the journey in the ambulance, barring brief, awkward condolences at the funeral.

  'I've been meaning to drop in,' Mary said, 'you were so kind - and I wanted to thank Miles - '

  'No need,' Samantha said awkwardly.

  'Oh, but I'd like - '

  'Oh, but then, please do - '

  After Mary had walked away, Samantha had the awful feeling that she might have given the impression that that evening would be a perfect time for Mary to come round.

  Once home, she dropped the bags in the hall and telephoned Miles at work to tell him what she had done, but he displayed an infuriating equanimity about the prospect of adding a newly widowed woman to their foursome.

  'I can't see what the problem is, really,' he said. 'Nice for Mary to get out. '

  'But I didn't say we were having Gavin and Kay over - '

  'Mary likes Gav,' said Miles. 'I wouldn't worry about it. '

  He was, Samantha thought, being deliberately obtuse, no doubt in retaliation for her refusal to go to Sweetlove House. After she had hung up, she wondered whether to call Mary to tell her not to come that evening, but she was afraid of sounding rude, and settled for hoping that Mary would find herself unequal to calling in after all.

  Stalking into the sitting room, she put on Libby's boy band DVD at full volume so that she would be able to hear it in the kitchen, then carried the bags through and set to work preparing a casserole and her fall-back pudding, Mississippi mud pie. She would have liked to buy one of Mollison and Lowe's large gateaux, to save herself some work, but it would have got straight back to Shirley, who frequently intimated that Samantha was over-reliant on frozen food and ready meals.

  Samantha knew the boy band DVD so well by now that she was able to visualize the images matching the music blaring through to the kitchen. Several times that week, while Miles was upstairs in his home study or on the telephone to Howard, she had watched it again. When she heard the opening bars of the track where the muscular boy walked, with his shirt flapping open, along the beach, she went through to watch in her apron, absent-mindedly sucking her chocolatey fingers.

  She had planned on having a long shower while Miles laid the table, forgetting that he would be late home, because he had to drive into Yarvil to pick up the girls from St Anne's. When Samantha realized why he had not returned, and that their daughters would be with him when he did, she had to fly around to organize the dining room herself, then find something to feed Lexie and Libby before the guests arrived. Miles found his wife in her work clothes at half-past seven, sweaty, cross and inclined to blame him for what had been her own idea.

  Fourteen-year-old Libby marched into the sitting room without greeting Samantha and removed the disc from the DVD player.

  'Oh, good, I was wondering what I'd done with that,' she said. 'Why's the TV on? Have you been playing it?'

  Sometimes, Samantha thought that her younger daughter had a look of Shirley about her.

  'I was watching the news, Libby. I haven't got time to watch DVDs. Come through, your pizza's ready. We've got people coming round. '

  'Frozen pizza again?'

  'Miles! I need to change. Can you mash the potatoes for me? Miles?'

  But he had disappeared upstairs, so Samantha pounded the potatoes herself, while her daughters ate at the island in the middle of the kitchen. Libby had propped the DVD cover against her glass of Diet Pepsi, and was ogling it.

  'Mikey's so lush,' she said, with a carnal groan that took Samantha aback; but the muscular boy was called Jake. Samantha was glad they did not like the same one.

  Loud and confident Lexie was jabbering about school; a machine-gun torrent of information about girls whom Samantha did not know, with whose antics and feuds and regroupings she could not keep up.

  'All right, you two, I've got to change. Clear away when you're done, all right?'

  She turned down the heat under the casserole and hurried upstairs. Miles was buttoning up his shirt in the bedroom, watching himself in the wardrobe mirror. The whole room smelt of soap and aftershave.

  'Everything under control, hon?'

  'Yes, thanks. So glad you've had time to shower,' spat Samantha, pulling out her favourite long skirt and top, slamming the wardrobe door.

  'You could have one now. '

  'They'll be here in ten minutes; I won't have time to dry my hair and put on make-up. ' She kicked off her shoes; one of them hit the radiator with a loud clang. 'When you've finished preening, could you please go downstairs and sort out drinks?'

  After Miles had left the room, she tried to untangle her thick hair and repair her make-up. She looked awful. Only when she had changed did she realize that she was wearing the wrong bra for her clinging top. After a frantic search, she remembered that the right one was drying in the utility room; she hurried out onto the landing but the doorbell rang. Swearing, she scuttled back to the bedroom. The boy band's music was blaring out of Libby's room.

  Gavin and Kay had arrived on the dot of eight because Gavin was afraid of what Samantha might say if they turned up late; he could imagine her suggesting that they had lost track of time because they were shagging or that they must have had a row. She seemed to think that one of the perks of marriage was that it gave you rights of comment and intrusion over single people's love lives. She also thought that her crass, uninhibited way of talking, especially when drunk, constituted trenchant humour.

  'Hello-ello-ello,' said Miles, moving back to let Gavin and Kay inside. 'Come in, come in. Welcome to Casa Mollison. '

  He kissed Kay on both cheeks and relieved her of the chocolates she was holding.

  'For us? Thanks very much. Lovely to meet you properly at last. Gav's been keeping you under wraps for far too long. '

  Miles shook the wine out of Gavin's hand, then clapped him on the back, which Gavin resented.

  'Come on through, Sam'll be down in a mo. What'll you have to drink?'

  Kay would ordinarily have found Miles rather smooth and over-familiar, but she was determined to suspend judgement. Couples had to mix with each other's circles, and manage to get along in them. This evening represented significant progress in her quest to infiltrate the layers of his life to which Gavin had never admitted her, and she wanted to show him that she was at home in the Mollisons' big, smug house, that there was no need to exclude her any more. So she smiled at Miles, asked for a red wine, and admired the spacious room with its stripped pine floorboards, its over-cushioned sofa and its framed prints.

  'Been here for, ooh, getting on for fourteen years,' said Miles, busy with the corkscrew. 'You're down in Hope Street, aren't you? Nice little houses, some great fixer-upper opportunities down there. '

  Samantha appeared, smiling without warmth. Kay, who had previously seen her only in an overcoat, noted the tightness of her orange top, beneath which every detail of
her lacy bra was clearly visible. Her face was even darker than her leathery chest; her eye make-up was thick and unflattering and her jangling gold earrings and high-heeled golden mules were, in Kay's opinion, tarty. Samantha struck her as the kind of woman who would have raucous girls' nights out, and find stripograms hilarious, and flirt drunkenly with everyone else's partner at parties.

  'Hi there,' said Samantha. She kissed Gavin and smiled at Kay. 'Great, you've got drinks. I'll have the same as Kay, Miles. '

  She turned away to sit down, having already taken stock of the other woman's appearance: Kay was small-breasted and heavy-hipped, and had certainly chosen her black trousers to minimize the size of her bottom. She would have done better, in Samantha's opinion, to wear heels, given the shortness of her legs. Her face was attractive enough, with even-toned olive skin, large dark eyes and a generous mouth; but the closely cropped boy's hair and the resolutely flat shoes were undoubtedly pointers to certain sacrosanct Beliefs. Gavin had done it again: he had gone and picked another humourless, domineering woman who would make his life a misery.

  'So!' said Samantha brightly, raising her glass. 'Gavin-and-Kay!'

  She saw, with satisfaction, Gavin's hangdog wince of a smile; but before she could make him squirm more or weasel private information out of them both to dangle over Shirley's and Maureen's heads, the doorbell rang again.

  Mary appeared fragile and angular, especially beside Miles, who ushered her into the room. Her T-shirt hung from protruding collarbones.

  'Oh,' she said, coming to a startled halt on the threshold. 'I didn't realize you were having - '

  'Gavin and Kay just dropped in,' said Samantha a little wildly. 'Come in, Mary, please . . . have a drink . . . '

  'Mary, this is Kay,' said Miles. 'Kay, this is Mary Fairbrother. '

  'Oh,' said Kay, thrown; she had thought that it would only be the four of them. 'Yes, hello. '

  Gavin, who could tell that Mary had not meant to drop in on a dinner party and was on the point of walking straight back out again, patted the sofa beside him; Mary sat down with a weak smile. He was overjoyed to see her. Here was his buffer; even Samantha must realize that her particular brand of prurience would be inappropriate in front of a bereaved woman; plus, the constrictive symmetry of a foursome had been broken up.

  'How are you?' he said quietly. 'I was going to give you a ring, actually . . . there've been developments with the insurance . . . '

  'Haven't we got any nibbles, Sam?' asked Miles.

  Samantha walked from the room, seething at Miles. The smell of scorched meat met her as she opened the kitchen door.

  'Oh shit, shit, shit . . . '

  She had completely forgotten the casserole, which had dried out. Desiccated chunks of meat and vegetables sat, forlorn survivors of the catastrophe, on the singed bottom of the pot. Samantha sloshed in wine and stock, chiselling the adhering bits off the pan with her spoon, stirring vigorously, sweating in the heat. Miles' high-pitched laugh rang out from the sitting room. Samantha put on long-stemmed broccoli to steam, drained her glass of wine, ripped open a bag of tortilla chips and a tub of hummus, and upended them into bowls.

  Mary and Gavin were still conversing quietly on the sofa when she returned to the sitting room, while Miles was showing Kay a framed aerial photograph of Pagford, and giving her a lesson in the town's history. Samantha set down the bowls on the coffee table, poured herself another drink and settled into the armchair, making no effort to join either conversation. It was awfully uncomfortable to have Mary there; with her grief hanging so heavily around her she might as well have walked in trailing a shroud. Surely, though, she would leave before dinner.

  Gavin was determined that Mary should stay. As they discussed the latest developments in their ongoing battle with the insurance company, he felt much more relaxed and in control than he usually did in Miles and Samantha's presence. Nobody was chipping away at him, or patronizing him, and Miles was absolving him temporarily of all responsibility for Kay.

  '. . . and just here, just out of sight,' Miles was saying, pointing to a spot two inches past the frame of the picture, 'you've got Sweetlove House, the Fawley place. Big Queen Anne manor house, dormers, stone quoins . . . stunning, you should visit, it's open to the public on Sundays in the summer. Important family locally, the Fawleys. '

  'Stone quoins?' 'Important family, locally?' God, you are an arse, Miles.

  Samantha hoisted herself out of her armchair and returned to the kitchen. Though the casserole was watery, the burnt flavour dominated. The broccoli was flaccid and tasteless; the mashed potato cool and dry. Past caring, she decanted it all into dishes and slammed it down on the circular dining-room table.

  'Dinner's ready!' she called at the sitting-room door.

  'Oh, I must go,' said Mary, jumping up. 'I didn't mean - '

  'No, no, no!' said Gavin, in a tone that Kay had never heard before: kindly and cajoling. 'It'll do you good to eat - kids'll be all right for an hour. '

  Miles added his support and Mary looked uncertainly towards Samantha, who was forced to add her voice to theirs, then dashed back through into the dining room to lay another setting.

  She invited Mary to sit between Gavin and Miles, because placing her next to a woman seemed to emphasize her husband's absence. Kay and Miles had moved on to discussing social work.

  'I don't envy you,' he said, serving Kay a large ladle full of casserole; Samantha could see black, scorched flecks in the sauce spreading across the white plate. 'Bloody difficult job. '

  'Well, we're perennially under-resourced,' said Kay, 'but it can be satisfying, especially when you can feel you're making a difference. '

  And she thought of the Weedons. Terri's urine sample had tested negative at the clinic yesterday and Robbie had had a full week in nursery. The recollection cheered her, counterbalancing her slight irritation that Gavin's attention was still focused entirely on Mary; that he was doing nothing to help ease her conversation with his friends.

  'You've got a daughter, haven't you, Kay?'

  'That's right: Gaia. She's sixteen. '

  'Same age as Lexie; we should get them together,' said Miles.

  'Divorced?' asked Samantha delicately.

  'No,' said Kay. 'We weren't married. He was a university boyfriend and we split up not long after she was born. '

  'Yeah, Miles and I had barely left university ourselves,' said Samantha.

  Kay did not know whether Samantha meant to draw a distinction between herself, who had married the big smug father of her children, and Kay, who had been left . . . not that Samantha could know that Brendan had left her . . .

  'Gaia's taken a Saturday job with your father, actually,' Kay told Miles. 'At the new cafe. '

  Miles was delighted. He took enormous pleasure in the idea that he and Howard were so much part of the fabric of the place that everybody in Pagford was connected to them, whether as friend or client, customer or employee. Gavin, who was chewing and chewing on a bit of rubbery meat that was refusing to yield to his teeth, experienced a further lowering in the pit of his stomach. It was news to him that Gaia had taken a job with Miles' father. Somehow he had forgotten that Kay possessed in Gaia another powerful device for anchoring herself to Pagford. When not in the immediate vicinity of her slamming doors, her vicious looks and caustic asides, Gavin tended to forget that Gaia had any independent existence at all; that she was not simply part of the uncomfortable backdrop of stale sheets, bad cooking and festering grudges against which his relationship with Kay staggered on.

  'Does Gaia like Pagford?' Samantha asked.

  'Well, it's a bit quiet compared to Hackney,' said Kay, 'but she's settling in well. '

  She took a large gulp of wine to wash out her mouth after disgorging the enormous lie. There had been yet another row before leaving tonight.

  ('What's the matter with you?' Kay had asked, while Gaia sat at the kitchen table, hunched over her laptop
, wearing a dressing gown over her clothes. Four or five boxes of dialogue were open on the screen. Kay knew that Gaia was communicating online with the friends she had left behind in Hackney, friends she had had, in most cases, since she had been in primary school.


  Refusal to answer was new and ominous. Kay was used to explosions of bile and rage against herself and, particularly, Gavin.

  'Gaia, I'm talking to you. '

  'I know, I can hear you. '

  'Then kindly have the courtesy to answer me back. '

  Black dialogue jerked upwards in the boxes on the screen, funny little icons, blinking and waggling.

  'Gaia, please will you answer me?'

  'What? What do you want?'

  'I'm trying to ask about your day. '

  'My day was shit. Yesterday was shit. Tomorrow will be shit as well. '

  'When did you get home?'

  'The same time I always get home. '

  Sometimes, even after all these years, Gaia displayed resentment at having to let herself in, at Kay not being at home to meet her like a storybook mother.

  'Do you want to tell me why your day was shit?'

  'Because you dragged me to live in a shithole. '

  Kay willed herself not to shout. Lately there had been screaming matches that she was sure the whole street had heard.

  'You know that I'm going out with Gavin tonight?'

  Gaia muttered something Kay did not catch.


  'I said, I didn't think he liked taking you out. '

  'What's that supposed to mean?'

  But Gaia did not answer; she simply typed a response into one of the scrolling conversations on the screen. Kay vacillated, both wanting to press her and afraid of what she might hear.

  'We'll be back around midnight, I expect. '

  Gaia had not responded. Kay had gone to wait for Gavin in the hall. )

  'Gaia's made friends,' Kay told Miles, 'with a girl who lives in this street; what's her name - Narinder?'

  'Sukhvinder,' said Miles and Samantha together.

  'She's a nice girl,' said Mary.

  'Have you met her father?' Samantha asked Kay.

  'No,' said Kay.

  'He's a heart surgeon,' said Samantha, who was on her fourth glass of wine. 'Absolutely bloody gorgeous. '

  'Oh,' said Kay.

  'Like a Bollywood film star. '

  None of them, Samantha reflected, had bothered to tell her that dinner was tasty, which would have been simple politeness, even though it was awful. If she wasn't allowed to torment Gavin, she ought at least to be able to needle Miles.

  'Vikram's the only good thing about living in this godforsaken town, I can tell you,' said Samantha. 'Sex on legs. '

  'And his wife's our local GP,' said Miles, 'and a parish councillor. You'll be employed by Yarvil District Council, Kay, are you?'

  'That's right,' said Kay. 'But I spend most of my time in the Fields. They're technically in Pagford Parish, aren't they?'

  Not the Fields, thought Samantha, Oh, don't mention the bloody Fields.

  'Ah,' said Miles, with a meaningful smile. 'Yes, well, the Fields do belong to Pagford, technically. Technically, they do. Painful subject, Kay. '

  'Really? Why?' asked Kay, hoping to make conversation general, because Gavin was still talking in an undertone to the widow.

  'Well, you see - this is back in the fifties. ' Miles seemed to be embarking on a well-rehearsed speech. 'Yarvil wanted to expand the Cantermill Estate, and instead of building out to the west, where the bypass is now - '

  'Gavin? Mary? More wine?' Samantha called over Miles.

  ' - they were a little bit duplicitous; land was bought without it being very clear what they wanted it for, and then they went and expanded the estate over the border into Pagford Parish. '

  'Why aren't you mentioning Old Aubrey Fawley, Miles?' asked Samantha. She had, at last, reached that delicious point of intoxication where her tongue became wicked and she became disengaged from fear of consequences, eager to provoke and to irritate, seeking nothing but her own amusement. 'The truth is that Old Aubrey Fawley, who used to own all those lovely stone quoits, or whatever Miles was telling you about, did a deal behind everyone's backs - '

  'That's not fair, Sam,' said Miles, but she talked over him again.

  ' - he flogged off the land where the Fields are built, pocketed, I don't know, must have been a quarter of a mill or so - '

  'Don't talk rubbish, Sam, back in the fifties?'

  ' - but then, once he realized everyone was pissed off with him, he pretended he hadn't known it would cause trouble. Upper-class twit. And a drunk,' added Samantha.

  'Simply not true, I'm afraid,' Miles said firmly. 'To fully understand the problem, Kay, you need to appreciate a bit of local history. '

  Samantha, holding her chin in her hand, pretended to slide her elbow off the table in boredom. Though she could not like Samantha, Kay laughed, and Gavin and Mary broke off their quiet conversation.

  'We're talking about the Fields,' said Kay, in a tone intended to remind Gavin that she was there; that he ought to be giving her moral support.

  Miles, Samantha and Gavin realized simultaneously that the Fields was a most tactless subject to raise in front of Mary, when they had been such a bone of contention between Barry and Howard.

  'Apparently they're a bit of a sore subject locally,' said Kay, wanting to force Gavin to express a view, to rope him in.

  'Mmm,' he replied, and turning back to Mary, he said, 'So how's Declan's football coming on?'

  Kay experienced a powerful stab of fury: Mary might be recently bereaved, but Gavin's solicitousness seemed unnecessarily pointed. She had imagined this evening quite differently: a foursome in which Gavin would have to acknowledge that they really were a couple; yet nobody looking on would imagine that they enjoyed a closer relationship than acquaintanceship. Also, the food was horrible. Kay put her knife and fork together with three-quarters of her helping untouched - an act that was not lost on Samantha - and addressed Miles again.

  'Did you grow up in Pagford?'

  'Afraid so,' said Miles, smiling complacently. 'Born in the old Kelland Hospital along the road. They closed it in the eighties. '

  'And you? - ' Kay asked Samantha, who cut across her.

  'God, no. I'm here by accident. '

  'Sorry, I don't know what you do, Samantha?' asked Kay.

  'I've got my own busi - '

  'She sells outsize bras,' said Miles.

  Samantha got up abruptly and went to fetch another bottle of wine. When she returned to the table, Miles was telling Kay the humorous anecdote, doubtless intended to illustrate how everyone knew everyone in Pagford, of how he had been pulled over in the car one night by a policeman who turned out to be a friend he had known since primary school. The blow-by-blow re-enactment of the banter between himself and Steve Edwards was tediously familiar to Samantha. As she moved around the table replenishing all the glasses, she watched Kay's austere expression; evidently, Kay did not find drink-driving a laughing matter.

  '. . . so Steve's holding out the breathalyser, and I'm about to blow in it, and out of nowhere we both start cracking up. His partner's got no idea what the hell's going on; he's like this' - Miles mimed a man turning his head from side to side in astonishment - 'and Steve's bent double, pissing himself, because all we can think of is the last time he was holding something steady for me to blow into, which was nigh on twenty years ago, and - '

  'It was a blow-up doll,' said Samantha, unsmiling, dropping back into her seat beside Miles. 'Miles and Steve put it in their friend Ian's parents' bed, during Ian's eighteenth-birthday party. Anyway, in the end Miles was fined a grand and got three points on his licence, because it was the second time he'd been caught over the limit. So that was hysterically funny. '

  Miles' grin remained foolishly in place, like a limp bal
loon forgotten after a party. A stiff little chill seemed to blow through the temporarily silent room. Though Miles struck her as an almighty bore, Kay was on his side: he was the only one at the table who seemed remotely inclined to ease her passage into Pagford social life.

  'I must say, the Fields are pretty rough,' she said, reverting to the subject with which Miles seemed most comfortable, and still ignorant that it was in any way inauspicious within Mary's vicinity. 'I've worked in the inner cities; I didn't expect to see that kind of deprivation in a rural area, but it's not all that different from London. Less of an ethnic mix, of course. '

  'Oh, yes, we've got our share of addicts and wasters,' said Miles. 'I think that's about all I can manage, Sam,' he added, pushing his plate away from him with a sizeable amount of food still on it.

  Samantha started to clear the table; Mary got up to help.

  'No, no, it's fine, Mary, you relax,' Samantha said. To Kay's annoyance, Gavin jumped up too, chivalrously insisting on Mary's sitting back down, but Mary insisted too.

  'That was lovely, Sam,' said Mary, in the kitchen, as they scraped most of the food into the bin.

  'No, it wasn't, it was horrible,' said Samantha, who was only appreciating how drunk she was now that she was on her feet. 'What do you think of Kay?'

  'I don't know. She's not what I expected,' said Mary.

  'She's exactly what I expected,' said Samantha, taking out plates for pudding. 'She's another Lisa, if you ask me. '

  'Oh, no, don't say that,' said Mary. 'He deserves someone nice this time. '

  This was a most novel point of view to Samantha, who was of the opinion that Gavin's wetness merited constant punishment.

  They returned to the dining room to find an animated conversation in progress between Kay and Miles, while Gavin sat in silence.

  '. . . offload responsibility for them, which seems to me to be a pretty self-centred and self-satisfied - '

  'Well, I think it's interesting that you use the word "responsibility",' said Miles, 'because I think that goes to the very heart of the problem, doesn't it? The question is, where exactly do we draw the line?'

  'Beyond the Fields, apparently. ' Kay laughed, with condescension. 'You want to draw a line neatly between the home-owning middle classes and the lower - '

  'Pagford's full of working-class people, Kay; the difference is, most of them work. D'you know what proportion of the Fields lives off benefits? Responsibility, you say: what happened to personal responsibility? We've had them through the local school for years: kids who haven't got a single worker in the family; the concept of earning a living is completely foreign to them; generations of non-workers, and we're expected to subsidize them - '

  'So your solution is to shunt off the problem onto Yarvil,' said Kay, 'not to engage with any of the underlying - '

  'Mississippi mud pie?' called Samantha.

  Gavin and Mary took slices with thanks; Kay, to Samantha's fury, simply held out her plate as though Samantha were a waitress, her attention all on Miles.

  '. . . the addiction clinic, which is absolutely crucial, and which certain people are apparently lobbying to close - '

  'Oh, well, if you're talking about Bellchapel,' said Miles, shaking his head and smirking, 'I hope you've mugged up on what the success rates are, Kay. Pathetic, frankly, absolutely pathetic. I've seen the figures, I was going through them this morning, and I won't lie to you, the sooner they close - '

  'And the figures you're talking about are . . . ?'

  'Success rates, Kay, exactly what I said: the number of people who have actually stopped using drugs, gone clean - '

  'I'm sorry, but that's a very naive point of view; if you're going to judge success purely - '

  'But how on earth else are we supposed to judge an addiction clinic's success?' demanded Miles, incredulous. 'As far as I can tell, all they do at Bellchapel is dole out methadone, which half of their clients use alongside heroin anyway. '

  'The whole problem of addiction is immensely complicated,' said Kay, 'and it's naive and simplistic to put the problem purely in terms of users and non . . . '

  But Miles was shaking his head, smiling; Kay, who had been enjoying her verbal duel with this self-satisfied lawyer, was suddenly angry.

  'Well, I can give you a very concrete example of what Bellchapel's doing: one family I'm working with - mother, teenage daughter and small son - if the mother wasn't on methadone, she'd be on the streets trying to pay for her habit; the kids are immeasurably better off - '

  'They'd be better off away from their mother, by the sound of it,' said Miles.

  'And where exactly would you propose they go?'

  'A decent foster home would be a good start,' said Miles.

  'Do you know how many foster homes there are, against how many kids needing them?' asked Kay.

  'The best solution would have been to have them adopted at birth - '

  'Fabulous. I'll hop in my time machine,' retorted Kay.

  'Well, we know a couple who were desperate to adopt,' said Samantha, unexpectedly throwing her weight behind Miles. She would not forgive Kay for the rude outstretched plate; the woman was bolshy and patronizing, exactly like Lisa, who had monopolized every get-together with her political views and her job in family law, despising Samantha for owning a bra shop. 'Adam and Janice,' she reminded Miles in parenthesis, who nodded; 'and they couldn't get a baby for love nor money, could they?'

  'Yes, a baby,' said Kay, rolling her eyes, 'everybody wants a baby. Robbie's nearly four. He's not potty-trained, he's developmentally behind for his age and he's almost certainly had inappropriate exposure to sexual behaviour. Would your friends like to adopt him?'

  'But the point is, if he'd been taken from his mother at birth - '

  'She was off the drugs when he was born, and making good progress,' said Kay. 'She loved him and wanted to keep him, and she was meeting his needs at the time. She'd already raised Krystal, with some family support - '

  'Krystal!' shrieked Samantha. 'Oh my God, are we talking about the Weedons?'

  Kay was horrified that she had used names; it had never mattered in London, but everyone truly did know everyone in Pagford, it seemed.

  'I shouldn't have - '

  But Miles and Samantha were laughing, and Mary looked tense. Kay, who had not touched her pie, and had managed very little of the first course, realized that she had drunk too much; she had been sipping wine steadily out of nerves, and now she had committed a prime indiscretion. Still, it was too late to undo that; anger overrode every other consideration.

  'Krystal Weedon is no advert for that woman's mothering skills,' said Miles.

  'Krystal's trying her damnedest to hold her family together,' said Kay. 'She loves her little brother very much; she's terrified he'll be taken away - '

  'I wouldn't trust Krystal Weedon to look after a boiling egg,' said Miles, and Samantha laughed again. 'Oh, look, it's to her credit she loves her brother, but he isn't a cuddly toy - '

  'Yes, I know that,' snapped Kay, remembering Robbie's shitty, crusted bottom, 'but he's still loved. '

  'Krystal bullied our daughter Lexie,' said Samantha, 'so we've seen a different side of her to the one I'm sure she shows you. '

  'Look, we all know Krystal's had a rough deal,' said Miles, 'nobody's denying that. It's the drug-addled mother I've got an issue with. '

  'As a matter of fact, she's doing very well on the Bellchapel programme at the moment. '

  'But with her history,' said Miles, 'it isn't rocket science, is it, to guess that she'll relapse?'

  'If you apply that rule across the board, you ought not to have a driving licence, because with your history you're bound to drink and drive again. '

  Miles was temporarily baffled, but Samantha said coldly, 'I think that's a rather different thing. '

  'Do you?' said Kay. 'It's the same principle. '

  'Yes, well, principles are sometimes the pro
blem, if you ask me,' said Miles. 'Often what's needed is a bit of common sense. '

  'Which is the name people usually give to their prejudices,' rejoined Kay.

  'According to Nietzsche,' said a sharp new voice, making them all jump, 'philosophy is the biography of the philosopher. '

  A miniature Samantha stood at the door into the hall, a busty girl of around sixteen in tight jeans and a T-shirt; she was eating a handful of grapes and looking rather pleased with herself.

  'Everyone meet Lexie,' said Miles proudly. 'Thank you for that, genius. '

  'You're welcome,' said Lexie pertly, and she swept off upstairs.

  A heavy silence sank over the table. Without really knowing why, Samantha, Miles and Kay all glanced towards Mary, who looked as though she might be on the verge of tears.

  'Coffee,' said Samantha, lurching to her feet. Mary disappeared into the bathroom.

  'Let's go and sit through,' said Miles, conscious that the atmosphere was somewhat charged, but confident that he could, with a few jokes and his habitual bonhomie, steer everyone back into charity with each other. 'Bring your glasses. '

  His inner certainties had been no more rearranged by Kay's arguments than a breeze can move a boulder; yet his feeling towards her was not unkind, but rather pitying. He was the least intoxicated by the constant refilling of glasses, but on reaching the sitting room he realized how very full his bladder was.

  'Whack on some music, Gav, and I'll go and get those choccies. '

  But Gavin made no move towards the vertical stacks of CDs in their sleek Perspex stands. He seemed to be waiting for Kay to start on him. Sure enough, as soon as Miles had vanished from sight, Kay said, 'Well, thank you very much, Gav. Thanks for all the support. '

  Gavin had drunk even more greedily than Kay throughout dinner, enjoying his own private celebration that he had not, after all, been offered up as a sacrifice to Samantha's gladiatorial bullying. He faced Kay squarely, full of a courage born not only of wine but because he had been treated for an hour as somebody important, knowledgeable and supportive, by Mary.

  'You seemed to be doing OK on your own,' he said.

  Indeed, the little he had permitted himself to hear of Kay and Miles' argument had given him a pronounced sense of deja vu; if he had not had Mary to distract him, he might have fancied himself back on that famous evening, in the identical dining room, when Lisa had told Miles that he epitomized all that was wrong with society, and Miles had laughed in her face, and Lisa had lost her temper and refused to stay for coffee. It was not very long after, that Lisa had admitted that she was sleeping with an associate partner at her firm and advised Gavin to get tested for chlamydia.

  'I don't know any of these people,' said Kay, 'and you haven't done one damn thing to make it any easier for me, have you?'

  'What did you want me to do?' asked Gavin. He was wonderfully calm, insulated by the imminent returns of the Mollisons and Mary, and by the copious amounts of Chianti he had consumed. 'I didn't want an argument about the Fields. I don't give a monkey's about the Fields. Plus,' he added, 'it's a touchy subject around Mary; Barry was fighting on the council to keep the Fields part of Pagford. '

  'Well, then, why couldn't you have told me - given me a hint?'

  He laughed, exactly as Miles had laughed at her. Before she could retort, the others returned like the Magi bearing gifts: Samantha carrying a tray of cups, followed by Mary holding the cafetiere, and Miles, with Kay's chocolates. Kay saw the flamboyant gold ribbon on the box and remembered how optimistic she had been about tonight when she had bought them. She turned her face away, trying to hide her anger, frantic with the desire to shout at Gavin, and also with a sudden, shocking urge to cry.

  'It's been so nice,' she heard Mary say, in a thick voice that suggested she, too, might have been crying, 'but I won't stay for coffee, I don't want to be late back; Declan's a bit . . . a bit unsettled at the moment. Thanks so much, Sam, Miles, it's been good to, you know . . . well, get out for a bit. '

  'I'll walk you up the - ' Miles began, but Gavin was talking firmly over him.

  'You stay here, Miles; I'll see Mary back. I'll walk you up the road, Mary. It'll only take five minutes. It's dark up the top there. '

  Kay was barely breathing; all her being was concentrated in loathing of complacent Miles, tarty Samantha and fragile, drooping Mary, but most of all of Gavin himself.

  'Oh, yes,' she heard herself saying, as everybody seemed to look towards her for permission, 'yep, you see Mary home, Gav. '

  She heard the front door close and Gavin had gone. Miles was pouring Kay's coffee. She watched the stream of hot black liquid fall, and felt suddenly, painfully alive to what she had risked in overthrowing her life for the man walking away into the night with another woman.