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The Casual Vacancy

J. K. Rowling

Part Two Chapter X



  Andrew left Yarvil at half-past three, to be sure of getting back to Hilltop House before five. Fats accompanied him to the bus stop and then, apparently on a whim, told Andrew that he thought he would stay in town for a bit, after all.

  Fats had made a loose arrangement to meet Krystal in the shopping centre. He strolled back towards the shops, thinking about what Andrew had done in the internet cafe, and trying to disentangle his own reactions.

  He had to admit that he was impressed; in fact, he felt somewhat upstaged. Andrew had thought the business through, and kept it to himself, and executed it efficiently: all of this was admirable. Fats experienced a twinge of pique that Andrew had formulated the plan without saying a word to him, and this led Fats to wonder whether, perhaps, he ought not to deplore the undercover nature of Andrew's attack on his father. Was there not something slippery and over-sophisticated about it; would it not have been more authentic to threaten Simon to his face or to take a swing at him?

  Yes, Simon was a shit, but he was undoubtedly an authentic shit; he did what he wanted, when he wanted, without submitting to societal constraints or conventional morality. Fats asked himself whether his sympathies ought not to lie with Simon, whom he liked entertaining with crude, crass humour focused mainly on people making tits of themselves or suffering slapstick injuries. Fats often told himself that he would rather have Simon, with his volatility, his unpredictable picking of fights - a worthy opponent, an engaged adversary - than Cubby.

  On the other hand, Fats had not forgotten the falling tin of creosote, Simon's brutish face and fists, the terrifying noise he had made, the sensation of hot wet piss running down his own legs, and (perhaps most shameful of all) his whole-hearted, desperate yearning for Tessa to come and take him away to safety. Fats was not yet so invulnerable that he was unsympathetic to Andrew's desire for retribution.

  So Fats came full circle: Andrew had done something daring, ingenious and potentially explosive in its consequences. Again Fats experienced a small pang of chagrin that it had not been he who had thought of it. He was trying to rid himself of his own acquired middle-class reliance on words, but it was difficult to forgo a sport at which he excelled, and as he trod the polished tiles of the shopping centre forecourt, he found himself turning phrases that would blow Cubby's self-important pretensions apart and strip him naked before a jeering public . . .

  He spotted Krystal among a small crowd of Fields kids, grouped around the benches in the middle of the thoroughfare between shops. Nikki, Leanne and Dane Tully were among them. Fats did not hesitate, nor appear to gather himself in the slightest, but continued to walk at the same speed, his hands in his pockets, into the battery of curious critical eyes, raking him from the top of his head to his trainers.

  'All righ', Fatboy?' called Leanne.

  'All right?' responded Fats. Leanne muttered something to Nikki, who cackled. Krystal was chewing gum energetically, colour high in her cheeks, throwing back her hair so that her earrings danced, tugging up her tracksuit bottoms.

  'All right?' Fats said to her, individually.

  'Yeah,' she said.

  'Duz yer mum know yer out, Fats?' asked Nikki.

  'Yeah, she brought me,' said Fats calmly, into the greedy silence. 'She's waiting outside in the car; she says I can have a quick shag before we go home for tea. '

  They all burst out laughing except Krystal, who squealed, 'Fuck off, you cheeky bastard!' but looked gratified.

  'You smokin' rollies?' grunted Dane Tully, his eyes on Fats' breast pocket. He had a large black scab on his lip.

  'Yeah,' said Fats.

  'Me uncle smokes them,' said Dane. 'Knackered his fuckin' lungs. '

  He picked idly at the scab.

  'Where're you two goin'?' asked Leanne, squinting from Fats to Krystal.

  'Dunno,' said Krystal, chewing her gum, glancing sideways at Fats.

  He did not enlighten either of them, but indicated the exit of the shopping centre with a jerk of his thumb.

  'Laters,' Krystal said loudly to the rest.

  Fats gave them a careless half-raised hand in farewell and walked away, Krystal striding along beside him. He heard more laughter in their wake, but did not care. He knew that he had acquitted himself well.

  'Where're we goin'?' asked Krystal.

  'Dunno,' said Fats. 'Where d'you usually go?'

  She shrugged, walking and chewing. They left the shopping centre and walked on down the high street. They were some distance from the recreation ground, where they had previously gone to find privacy.

  'Didjer mum really drop yeh?' Krystal asked.

  'Course she bloody didn't. I got the bus in, didn't I?'

  Krystal accepted the rebuke without rancour, glancing sideways into the shop windows at their paired reflections. Stringy and strange, Fats was a school celebrity. Even Dane thought he was funny.

  'He's on'y usin' yeh, yeh stupid bitch,' Ashlee Mellor had spat at her, three days ago, on the corner of Foley Road, 'because yer a fuckin' whore, like yer mum. '

  Ashlee had been a member of Krystal's gang until the two of them had clashed over another boy. Ashlee was notoriously not quite right in the head; she was prone to outbursts of rage and tears, and divided most of her time between learning support and guidance when at Winterdown. If further proof were needed of her inability to think through consequences, she had challenged Krystal on her home turf, where Krystal had back-up and she had none. Nikki, Jemma and Leanne had helped corner and hold Ashlee, and Krystal had pummelled and slapped her everywhere she could reach, until her knuckles came away bloody from the other girl's mouth.

  Krystal was not worried about repercussions.

  'Soft as shite an' twice as runny,' she said of Ashlee and her family.

  But Ashlee's words had stung a tender, infected place in Krystal's psyche, so it had been balm to her when Fats had sought her out at school the next day and asked her, for the first time, to meet him over the weekend. She had told Nikki and Leanne immediately that she was going out with Fats Wall on Saturday, and had been gratified by their looks of surprise. And to cap it all, he had turned up when he had said he would (or within half an hour of it) right in front of all her mates, and walked away with her. It was like they were properly going out.

  'So what've you been up to?' Fats asked, after they had walked fifty yards in silence, back past the internet cafe. He knew a conventional need to keep some form of communication going, even while he wondered whether they would find a private place before the rec, a half-hour's walk away. He wanted to screw her while they were both stoned; he was curious to know what that was like.

  'I bin ter see my Nana in hospital this mornin', she's 'ad a stroke,' said Krystal.

  Nana Cath had not tried to speak this time, but Krystal thought she had known that she was there. As Krystal had expected, Terri was refusing to visit, so Krystal had sat beside the bed on her own for an hour until it was time to leave for the precinct.

  Fats was curious about the minutiae of Krystal's life; but only in so far as she was an entry point to the real life of the Fields. Particulars such as hospital visits were of no interest to him.

  'An',' Krystal added, with an irrepressible spurt of pride, 'I've gave an interview to the paper. '

  'What?' said Fats, startled. 'Why?'

  'Jus' about the Fields,' said Krystal. 'What it's like growin' up there. '

  (The journalist had found her at home at last, and when Terri had given her grudging permission, taken her to a cafe to talk. She had kept asking her whether being at St Thomas's had helped Krystal, whether it had changed her life in any way. She had seemed a little impatient and frustrated by Krystal's answers.

  'How are your marks at school?' she had said, and Krystal had been evasive and defensive.

  'Mr Fairbrother said that he thought it broadened your horizons. '

tal did not know what to say about horizons. When she thought of St Thomas's, it was of her delight in the playing field with the big chestnut tree, which rained enormous glossy conkers on them every year; she had never seen conkers before she went to St Thomas's. She had liked the uniform at first, liked looking the same as everybody else. She had been excited to see her great-grandfather's name on the war memorial in the middle of the Square: Pte Samuel Weedon. Only one other boy had his surname on the war memorial, and that was a farmer's son, who had been able to drive a tractor at nine, and who had once brought a lamb into class for Show and Tell. Krystal had never forgotten the sensation of the lamb's fleece under her hand. When she told Nana Cath about it, Nana Cath had said that their family had been farm labourers once.

  Krystal had loved the river, green and lush, where they had gone for nature walks. Best of all had been rounders and athletics. She was always first to be picked for any kind of sporting team, and she had delighted in the groan that went up from the other team whenever she was chosen. And she thought sometimes of the special teachers she had been given, especially Miss Jameson, who had been young and trendy, with long blonde hair. Krystal had always imagined Anne-Marie to be a little bit like Miss Jameson.

  Then there were snippets of information that Krystal had retained in vivid, accurate detail. Volcanoes: they were made by plates shifting in the ground; they had made model ones and filled them with bicarbonate of soda and washing-up liquid, and they had erupted onto plastic trays. Krystal had loved that. She knew about Vikings too: they had longships and horned helmets, though she had forgotten when they arrived in Britain, or why.

  But other memories of St Thomas's included the muttered comments made about her by little girls in her class, one or two of whom she had slapped. When Social Services had allowed her to go back to her mother, her uniform became so tight, short and grubby that letters were sent from school, and Nana Cath and Terri had a big row. The other girls at school had not wanted her in their groups, except for their rounders teams. She could still remember Lexie Mollison handing everyone in the class a little pink envelope containing a party invitation, and walking past Krystal with - as Krystal remembered it - her nose in the air.

  Only a couple of people had asked her to parties. She wondered whether Fats or his mother remembered that she had once attended a birthday party at their house. The whole class had been invited, and Nana Cath had bought Krystal a party dress. So she knew that Fats' huge back garden had a pond and a swing and an apple tree. They had eaten jelly and had sack races. Tessa had told Krystal off because, trying desperately hard to win a plastic medal, she had pushed other children out of the way. One of them had had a nosebleed.

  'You enjoyed St Thomas's, though, did you?' the journalist had asked.

  'Yeah,' said Krystal, but she knew that she had not conveyed what Mr Fairbrother had wanted her to convey, and wished he could have been there with her to help. 'Yeah, I enjoyed it. ')

  'How come they wanted to talk to you about the Fields?' asked Fats.

  'It were Mr Fairbrother's idea,' said Krystal.

  After another few minutes, Fats asked, 'D'you smoke?'

  'Wha', like spliffs? Yeah, I dunnit with Dane. '

  'I've got some on me,' said Fats.

  'Get it off Skye Kirby, didja?' asked Krystal. He wondered whether he imagined a trace of amusement in her voice; because Skye was the soft, safe option, the place the middle-class kids went. If so, Fats liked her authentic derision.

  'Where d'you get yours, then?' he asked, interested now.

  'I dunno, it were Dane's,' she said.

  'From Obbo?' suggested Fats.

  'Tha' fuckin' tosser. '

  'What's wrong with him?'

  But Krystal had no words for what was wrong with Obbo; and even if she had, she would not have wanted to talk about him. Obbo made her flesh crawl; sometimes he came round and shot up with Terri; at other times he fucked her, and Krystal would meet him on the stairs, tugging up his filthy fly, smiling at her through his bottle-bottom glasses. Often Obbo had little jobs to offer Terri, like hiding the computers, or giving strangers a place to stay for a night, or agreeing to perform services of which Krystal did not know the nature, but which took her mother out of the house for hours.

  Krystal had had a nightmare, not long ago, in which her mother had become stretched, spread and tied on a kind of frame; she was mostly a vast, gaping hole, like a giant, raw, plucked chicken; and in the dream, Obbo was walking in and out of this cavernous interior, and fiddling with things in there, while Terri's tiny head was frightened and grim. Krystal had woken up feeling sick and angry and disgusted.

  ''E's a fucker,' said Krystal.

  'Is he a tall bloke with a shaved head and tattoos all up the back of his neck?' asked Fats, who had truanted for a second time that week, and sat on a wall for an hour in the Fields, watching. The bald man had interested him, fiddling around in the back of an old white van.

  'Nah, tha's Pikey Pritchard,' said Krystal, 'if yeh saw him down Tarpen Road. '

  'What does he do?'

  'I dunno,' said Krystal. 'Ask Dane, 'e's mates with Pikey's brother. '

  But she liked his genuine interest; he had never shown this much inclination to talk to her before.

  'Pikey's on probation. '

  'What for?'

  'He glassed a bloke down the Cross Keys. '


  ''Ow the fuck do I know? I weren't there,' said Krystal.

  She was happy, which always made her cocky. Setting aside her worry about Nana Cath (who was, after all, still alive, so might yet recover), it had been a good couple of weeks. Terri was adhering to the Bellchapel regime again, and Krystal was making sure that Robbie went to nursery. His bottom had mostly healed over. The social worker seemed as pleased as her sort ever did. Krystal had been to school every day too, though she had not attended either her Monday or her Wednesday morning guidance sessions with Tessa. She did not know why. Sometimes you got out of the habit.

  She glanced sideways at Fats again. She had never once thought of fancying him; not until he had targeted her at the disco in the drama hall. Everyone knew Fats; some of his jokes were passed around like funny stuff that happened on the telly. (Krystal pretended to everyone that they had a television at home. She watched enough at friends' houses, and at Nana Cath's, to be able to bluff her way through. 'Yeah, it were shit, weren't it?' 'I know, I nearly pissed meself,' she would say, when the others talked about programmes they had seen. )

  Fats was imagining how it would feel to be glassed, how the jagged shard would slice through the tender flesh on his face; he could feel the searing nerves and the sting of the air against his ripped skin; the warm wetness as blood gushed. He felt a tickly over-sensitivity in the skin around his mouth, as if it was already scarred.

  'Is he still carrying a blade, Dane?' he asked.

  ''Ow d'you know 'e's gotta blade?' demanded Krystal.

  'He threatened Kevin Cooper with it. '

  'Oh, yeah,' Krystal conceded. 'Cooper's a twat, innee?'

  'Yeah, he is,' said Fats.

  'Dane's on'y carryin' 'cos o' the Riordon brothers,' said Krystal.

  Fats liked the matter-of-factness of Krystal's tone; her acceptance of the need for a knife, because there was a grudge and a likelihood of violence. This was the raw reality of life; these were things that actually mattered . . . before Arf had arrived at the house that day, Cubby had been importuning Tessa to give him an opinion on whether his campaign leaflet should be printed on yellow or white paper . . .

  'What about in there?' suggested Fats, after a while.

  To their right was a long stone wall, its gates open to reveal a glimpse of green and stone.

  'Yeah, all righ',' said Krystal. She had been in the cemetery once before, with Nikki and Leanne; they had sat on a grave and split a couple of cans, a little self-conscious about what they were doing, until a woman ha
d shouted at them and called them names. Leanne had lobbed an empty can back at the woman as they left.

  But it was too exposed, Fats thought, as he and Krystal walked up the broad concreted walkway between the graves: green and flat, the headstones offering virtually no cover. Then he saw barberry hedges along the wall on the far side. He cut a path right across the cemetery, and Krystal followed, hands in her pockets, as they picked their way between rectangular gravel beds, headstones cracked and illegible. It was a large cemetery, wide and well tended. Gradually they reached the newer graves of highly polished black marble with gold lettering, places where fresh flowers had been laid for the recently dead.

  To Lyndsey Kyle, September 15 1960-March 26 2008,

  Sleep Tight Mum.

  'Yeah, we'll be all right in there,' said Fats, eyeing the dark gap between the prickly, yellow-flowered bushes and the cemetery wall.

  They crawled into the damp shadows, onto the earth, their backs against the cold wall. The headstones marched away from them between the bushes' trunks, but there were no human forms among them. Fats skinned up expertly, hoping that Krystal was watching, and was impressed.

  But she was gazing out under the canopy of glossy dark leaves, thinking about Anne-Marie, who (Aunt Cheryl had told her) had come to visit Nana Cath on Thursday. If only she had skipped school and gone at the same time, they could have met at last. She had fantasized, many times, about how she would meet Anne-Marie, and say to her, 'I'm yer sister. ' Anne-Marie, in these fantasies, was always delighted, and they saw each other all the time after that, and eventually Anne-Marie suggested that Krystal move in. The imaginary Anne-Marie had a house like Nana Cath's, neat and clean, except that it was much more modern. Lately, in her fantasies, Krystal had added a sweet little pink baby in a frilly crib.

  'There you go,' said Fats, handing Krystal the joint. She inhaled, held the smoke in her lungs for a few seconds, and her expression softened into dreaminess as the cannabis worked its magic.

  'You ain' got brothers an' sisters,' she asked, ''ave yeh?'

  'No,' said Fats, checking his pocket for the condoms he had brought.

  Krystal handed back the joint, her head swimming pleasantly. Fats took an enormous drag and blew smoke rings.

  'I'm adopted,' he said, after a while.

  Krystal goggled at Fats.

  'Are yeh adopted, are yeh?'

  With the senses a little muffled and cushioned, confidences peeled easily away, everything became easy.

  'My sister wuz adopted,' said Krystal, marvelling at the coincidence, delighted to talk about Anne-Marie.

  'Yeah, I probably come from a family like yours,' said Fats.

  But Krystal was not listening; she wanted to talk.

  'I gottan older sister an' an older brother, Liam, but they wuz taken away before I wuz born. '

  'Why?' asked Fats.

  He was suddenly paying close attention.

  'Me mum was with Ritchie Adams then,' said Krystal. She took a deep drag on the joint and blew out the smoke in a long thin jet. 'He's a proper psycho. He's doin' life. He killed a bloke. Proper violent to Mum an' the kids, an' then John an' Sue came an' took 'em, and the social got involved an' it ended up John an' Sue kept 'em. '

  She drew on the joint again, considering this period of her pre-life, which was doused in blood, fury and darkness. She had heard things about Ritchie Adams, mainly from her aunt Cheryl. He had stubbed out cigarettes on one-year-old Anne-Marie's arms, and kicked her until her ribs cracked. He had broken Terri's face; her left cheekbone was still receded, compared to the right. Terri's addiction had spiralled catastrophically. Aunt Cheryl was matter of fact about the decision to remove the two brutalized, neglected children from their parents.

  'It 'ad to 'appen,' said Cheryl.

  John and Sue were distant, childless relatives. Krystal had never known where or how they fitted in her complex family tree, or how they had effected what, to hear Terri tell it, sounded like kidnap. After much wrangling with the authorities, they had been allowed to adopt the children. Terri, who had remained with Ritchie until his arrest, never saw Anne-Marie or Liam, for reasons Krystal did not entirely understand; the whole story was clotted and festering with hatred and unforgivable things said and threatened, restraining orders, lots more social workers.

  'Who's your dad, then?' asked Fats.

  'Banger,' said Krystal. She struggled to recall his real name. 'Barry,' she muttered, though she had a suspicion that was not right. 'Barry Coates. O'ny I uses me mum's name, Weedon. '

  The memory of the dead young man who had overdosed in Terri's bathroom floated back to her through the sweet, heavy smoke. She passed the joint back to Fats and leaned her head against the stone wall, looking up at the sliver of sky, mottled with dark leaves.

  Fats was thinking about Ritchie Adams, who had killed a man, and considering the possibility that his own biological father was in prison somewhere too; tattooed, like Pikey, spare and muscled. He mentally compared Cubby with this strong, hard authentic man. Fats knew that he had been parted from his biological mother as a very small baby, because there were pictures of Tessa holding him, frail and bird-like, with a woolly white cap on his head. He had been premature. Tessa had told him a few things, though he had never asked. His real mother had been very young when she had him, he knew that. Perhaps she had been like Krystal; the school bike . . .

  He was properly stoned now. He put his hand behind Krystal's neck and pulled her towards him, kissing her, sticking his tongue into her mouth. With his other hand, he groped for her breast. His brain was fuzzy and his limbs were heavy; even his sense of touch seemed affected. He fumbled a little to get his hand inside her T-shirt, to force it under her bra. Her mouth was hot and tasted of tobacco and dope; her lips were dry and chapped. His excitement was slightly blunted; he seemed to be receiving all sensory information through an invisible blanket. It took longer than the last time to prise her clothes loose from her body, and the condom was difficult, because his fingers had become stiff and slow; then he accidentally placed his elbow, with all his weight behind it, on her soft fleshy underarm and she shrieked in pain.

  She was drier than before; he forced his way inside her, determined to accomplish what he had come for. Time was glue-like and slow, but he could hear his own rapid breathing, and it made him edgy, because he imagined someone else, crouching in the dark space with them, watching, panting in his ear. Krystal moaned a little. With her head thrown back, her nose became broad and snout-like. He pushed up her T-shirt to look at the smooth white breasts, jiggling a little, beneath the loose constraint of the undone bra. He came without expecting it, and his own grunt of satisfaction seemed to belong to the crouching eavesdropper.

  He rolled off her, peeled off the condom and threw it aside, then zipped himself up, feeling jittery, looking around to check that they were definitely alone. Krystal was dragging her pants up with one hand, pulling down her T-shirt with the other, reaching behind herself to do up her bra.

  It had become cloudy and darker while they had sat behind the bushes. There was a distant buzzing in Fats' ears; he was very hungry; his brain was working slowly, while his ears were hypersensitive. The fear that they had been watched, perhaps over the top of the wall behind them, would not leave him. He wanted to go.

  'Let's . . . ' he muttered, and without waiting for her, he crawled out between the bushes and got to his feet, brushing himself down. There was an elderly couple a hundred yards away, crouching at a graveside. He wanted to get right away from phantom eyes that might, or might not, have watched him screw Krystal Weedon; but at the same time, the process of finding the right bus stop and getting on the bus to Pagford seemed almost unbearably onerous. He wished he could simply be transported, this instant, to his attic bedroom.

  Krystal had staggered out behind him. She was pulling down the bottom of her T-shirt and staring down at the grassy ground at her feet.

'Fuck,' she mumbled.

  'What?' said Fats. 'C'mon, let's go. '

  ''S Mr Fairbrother,' she said, without moving.


  She pointed at the mound in front of them. There was no headstone yet; but fresh flowers lay all along it.

  'See?' she said, crouching over and indicating cards stapled to the cellophane. 'Tha' sez Fairbrother. ' She recognized the name easily from all those letters that had gone home from school, asking her mother to give permission for her to go away on the minibus. '"Ter Barry",' she read carefully, 'an' this sez, "Ter Dad",' she sounded out the words slowly, '"from . . . "'

  But Niamh and Siobhan's names defeated her.

  'So?' demanded Fats; but in truth, the news gave him the creeps. That wickerwork coffin lay feet below them, and inside it the short body and cheery face of Cubby's dearest friend, so often seen in their house, rotting away in the earth. The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother . . . he was unnerved. It seemed like some kind of retribution.

  'C'mon,' he said, but Krystal did not move. 'What's the matter?'

  'I rowed for 'im, di'n I?' snapped Krystal.

  'Oh, yeah. '

  Fats was fidgeting like a restive horse, edging backwards.

  Krystal stared down at the mound, hugging herself. She felt empty, sad and dirty. She wished they had not done it there, so close to Mr Fairbrother. She was cold. Unlike Fats, she had no jacket.

  'C'mon,' said Fats again.

  She followed him out of the cemetery, and they did not speak to each other once. Krystal was thinking about Mr Fairbrother. He had always called her 'Krys', which nobody else had ever done. She had liked being Krys. He had been a good laugh. She wanted to cry.

  Fats was thinking about how he would be able to work this into a funny story for Andrew, about being stoned and fucking Krystal and getting paranoid and thinking they were being watched and crawling out almost onto old Barry Fairbrother's grave. But it did not feel funny yet; not yet.