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The Casual Vacancy

J. K. Rowling

Part Two Chapter VIII



  Colin Wall saw Gavin and Mary pass under his study window. He recognized Mary's silhouette at once, but had to squint to identify the stringy man at her side, before they moved out of the aureole cast by the street light. Crouching, half-raised out of his computer chair, Colin gaped after the figures as they disappeared into the darkness.

  He was shocked to his core, having taken it for granted that Mary was in a kind of purdah; that she was receiving only women in the sanctuary of her own home, among them Tessa, who was still visiting every other day. Never had it occurred to him that Mary might be socializing after dark, least of all with a single man. He felt personally betrayed; as though Mary, on some spiritual level, was cuckolding him.

  Had Mary permitted Gavin to see Barry's body? Was Gavin spending evenings sitting in Barry's favourite seat by the fire? Were Gavin and Mary . . . could they possibly be . . . ? Such things happened, after all, every day. Perhaps . . . perhaps even before Barry's death . . . ?

  Colin was perennially appalled by the threadbare state of other people's morals. He tried to insulate himself against shocks by pushing himself to imagine the worst: by conjuring awful visions of depravity and betrayal, rather than waiting for the truth to rip like a shell through his innocent delusions. Life, for Colin, was one long brace against pain and disappointment, and everybody apart from his wife was an enemy until they had proven otherwise.

  He was half inclined to rush downstairs to tell Tessa what he had just seen, because she might be able to give him an innocuous explanation of Mary's night-time stroll, and to reassure him that his best friend's widow had been, and was still, faithful to her husband. Nonetheless, he resisted the urge, because he was angry with Tessa.

  Why was she showing such a determined lack of interest in his forthcoming candidacy for the council? Did she not realize how tight a stranglehold his anxiety had gained over him ever since he had sent in his application form? Even though he had expected to feel this way, the pain was not diminished by anticipation, any more than being hit by a train would be less devastating for seeing it approaching down the track; Colin merely suffered twice: in the expectation and in its realization.

  His nightmarish new fantasies swirled around the Mollisons and the ways in which they were likely to attack him. Counter-arguments, explanations and extenuations ran constantly through his mind. He saw himself already besieged, fighting for his reputation. The edge of paranoia always apparent in Colin's dealings with the world was becoming more pronounced; and meanwhile, Tessa was pretending to be oblivious, doing absolutely nothing to help alleviate the dreadful, crushing strain.

  He knew that she did not think he ought to be standing. Perhaps she too was terrified that Howard Mollison would slit open the bulging gut of their past, and spill its ghastly secrets for all the Pagford vultures to pick over.

  Colin had already made a few telephone calls to those whom Barry had counted on for support. He had been surprised and heartened that not one of them had challenged his credentials or interrogated him on the issues. Without exception, they had expressed their profound sorrow at the loss of Barry and their intense dislike of Howard Mollison, or 'tha' great smug basturd', as one of the blunter voters had called him. 'Tryin' ter crowbar in 'is son. 'E could 'ardly stop hisself grinnin' when 'e 'eard Barry was dead. ' Colin, who had compiled a list of pro-Fields talking points, had not needed to refer to the paper once. So far, his main appeal as a candidate seemed to be that he was Barry's friend, and that he was not called Mollison.

  His miniature black and white face was smiling at him out of the computer monitor. He had been sitting here all evening, trying to compose his election pamphlet, for which he had decided to use the same photograph as was featured on the Winterdown website: full face, with a slightly anodyne grin, his forehead steep and shiny. The image had in its favour the fact that it had already been submitted to the public gaze, and had not brought down ridicule or ruin upon him: a powerful recommendation. But beneath the photograph, where the personal information ought to have been, were only one or two tentative sentences. Colin had spent most of the last two hours composing and then deleting words; at one point he had managed to complete an entire paragraph, only to destroy it, backspace by backspace, with a nervous, jabbing forefinger.

  Unable to bear the indecision and solitude, he jumped up and went downstairs. Tessa was lying on the sofa in the sitting room, apparently dozing, with the television on in the background.

  'How's it going?' she asked sleepily, opening her eyes.

  'Mary's just gone by. Walking up the street with Gavin Hughes. '

  'Oh,' said Tessa. 'She said something about going over to Miles and Samantha's, earlier. Gavin must have been there. He's probably walking her home. '

  Colin was appalled. Mary visiting Miles, the man who sought to fill her husband's shoes, who stood in opposition to all that Barry had fought for?

  'What on earth was she doing at the Mollisons'?'

  'They went with her to the hospital, you know that,' said Tessa, sitting up with a small groan and stretching her short legs. 'She hasn't spoken to them properly since. She wanted to thank them. Have you finished your pamphlet?'

  'I'm nearly there. Listen, with the information - I mean, as far as the personal information goes - past posts, do you think? Or limit it to Winterdown?'

  'I don't think you need say more than where you work now. But why don't you ask Minda? She . . . ' Tessa yawned '. . . she's done it herself. '

  'Yes,' said Colin. He waited, standing over her, but she did not offer to help, or even to read what he had written so far. 'Yes, that's a good idea,' he said, more loudly. 'I'll get Minda to look over it. '

  She grunted, massaging her ankles, and he left the room, full of wounded pride. His wife could not possibly realize what a state he was in, how little sleep he was getting, or how his stomach was gnawing itself from within.

  Tessa had only pretended to be asleep. Mary and Gavin's footsteps had woken her ten minutes previously.

  Tessa barely knew Gavin; he was fifteen years younger than her and Colin, but the main barrier towards intimacy had always been Colin's tendency to be jealous of Barry's other friendships.

  'He's been amazing about the insurance,' Mary had told Tessa on the telephone earlier. 'He's on the phone to them every day, from what I can gather, and he keeps telling me not to worry about fees. Oh God, Tessa, if they don't pay out . . . '

  'Gavin will sort it out for you,' said Tessa. 'I'm sure he will. '

  It would have been nice, thought Tessa, stiff and thirsty on the sofa, if she and Colin could have had Mary round to the house, to give her a change of scene and make sure she was eating, but there was one insuperable barrier: Mary found Colin difficult, a strain. This uncomfortable and hitherto concealed fact had emerged slowly in the wake of Barry's death, like flotsam revealed by the ebbing tide. It could not have been plainer that Mary wanted only Tessa; she shied away from suggestions that Colin might help with anything, and avoided talking to him too long on the telephone. They had met so often as a foursome for years, and Mary's antipathy had never surfaced: Barry's good humour must have cloaked it.

  Tessa had to manage the new state of affairs with great delicacy. She had successfully persuaded Colin that Mary was happiest in the company of other women. The funeral had been her one failure, because Colin had ambushed Mary as they all left St Michael's and tried to explain, through racking sobs, that he was going to stand for Barry's seat on the council, to carry on Barry's work, to make sure Barry prevailed posthumously. Tessa had seen Mary's shocked and offended expression, and pulled him away.

  Once or twice since, Colin had stated his intention of going over to show Mary all his election materials, to ask whether Barry would have approved of them; even voiced an intention of seeking guidance from Mary as to how Barry would have handled the process of canvassing for votes. In the end Tessa had tol
d him firmly that he must not badger Mary about the Parish Council. He became huffy at this, but it was better, Tessa thought, that he should be angry with her, rather than adding to Mary's distress, or provoking her into a rebuff, as had happened over the viewing of Barry's body.

  'The Mollisons, though!' said Colin, re-entering the room with a cup of tea. He had not offered Tessa one; he was often selfish in these little ways, too busy with his own worries to notice. 'Of all the people for her to have dinner with! They were against everything Barry stood for!'

  'That's a bit melodramatic, Col,' said Tessa. 'Anyway, Mary was never as interested in the Fields as Barry. '

  But Colin's only understanding of love was of limitless loyalty, boundless tolerance: Mary had fallen, irreparably, in his estimation.