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The Casual Vacancy

J. K. Rowling

Part Three Chapter II



  'Wha' d'you wan'?'

  Terri Weedon's shrunken body was dwarfed by her own doorway. She put claw-like hands on either jamb, trying to make herself more imposing, barring the entrance. It was eight in the morning; Krystal had just left with Robbie.

  'Wanna talk ter yeh,' said her sister. Broad and mannish in her white vest and tracksuit bottoms, Cheryl sucked on a cigarette and squinted at Terri through the smoke. 'Nana Cath's died,' she said.


  'Nana Cath's died,' repeated Cheryl loudly. 'Like you fuckin' care. '

  But Terri had heard the first time. The news had hit her so hard in the guts that she had asked to hear it again out of confusion.

  'Are you blasted?' demanded Cheryl, glaring into the taut and empty face.

  'Fuck off. No, I ain't. '

  It was the truth. Terri had not used that morning; she had not used for three weeks. She took no pride in it; there was no star chart pinned up in the kitchen; she had managed longer than this before, months, even. Obbo had been away for the past fortnight, so it had been easier. But her works were still in the old biscuit tin, and the craving burned like an eternal flame inside her frail body.

  'She died yesterday. Danielle on'y fuckin' bothered to lemme know this mornin',' said Cheryl. 'An' I were gonna go up the 'ospital an' see 'er again today. Danielle's after the 'ouse. Nana Cath's 'ouse. Greedy bitch. '

  Terri had not been inside the little terraced house on Hope Street for a long time, but when Cheryl spoke she saw, very vividly, the knick-knacks on the sideboard and the net curtains. She imagined Danielle there, pocketing things, ferreting in cupboards.

  'Funeral's Tuesday at nine, up the crematorium. '

  'Right,' said Terri.

  'It's our 'ouse as much as Danielle's,' said Cheryl. 'I'll tell 'er we wan' our share. Shall I?'

  'Yeah,' said Terri.

  She watched until Cheryl's canary hair and tattoos had vanished around the corner, then retreated inside.

  Nana Cath dead. They had not spoken for a long time. I'm washin' my 'ands of yeh. I've 'ad enough, Terri, I've 'ad it. She had never stopped seeing Krystal, though. Krystal had become her blue-eyed girl. She had been to watch Krystal row in her stupid boat races. She had said Krystal's name on her deathbed, not Terri's.

  Fine, then, you old bitch. Like I care. Too late now.

  Tight-chested and trembling, Terri moved through her stinking kitchen in search of cigarettes, but really craving the spoon, the flame and the needle.

  Too late, now, to say to the old lady what she ought to have said. Too late, now, to become again her Terri-Baby. Big girls don't cry . . . big girls don't cry . . . It had been years before she had realized that the song Nana Cath had sung her, in her rasping smoker's voice, was really 'Sherry Baby'.

  Terri's hands scuttled like vermin through the debris on the work tops, searching for fag packets, ripping them apart, finding them all empty. Krystal had probably had the last of them; she was a greedy little cow, just like Danielle, riffling through Nana Cath's possessions, trying to keep her death quiet from the rest of them.

  There was a long stub lying on a greasy plate; Terri wiped it off on her T-shirt and lit it on the gas cooker. Inside her head, she heard her own eleven-year-old voice.

  I wish you was my mummy.

  She did not want to remember. She leaned up against the sink, smoking, trying to look forward, to imagine the clash that was coming between her two older sisters. Nobody messed with Cheryl and Shane: they were both handy with their fists, and Shane had put burning rags through some poor bastard's letter box not so long ago; it was why he'd done his last stretch, and he would still be inside if the house had not been empty at the time. But Danielle had weapons Cheryl did not: money and her own home, and a landline. She knew official people and how to talk to them. She was the kind that had spare keys, and mysterious bits of paperwork.

  Yet Terri doubted that Danielle would get the house, even with her secret weapons. There were more than just the three of them; Nana Cath had had loads of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. After Terri had been taken into care, her father had had more kids. Nine in total, Cheryl reckoned, to five different mothers. Terri had never met her half-siblings, but Krystal had told her that Nana Cath saw them.

  'Yeah?' she had retorted. 'I hope they rob her blind, the stupid old bitch. '

  So she saw the rest of the family, but they weren't exactly angels, from all that Terri had heard. It was only she, who had once been Terri-Baby, whom Nana Cath had cut adrift for ever.

  When you were straight, evil thoughts and memories came pouring up out of the darkness inside you; buzzing black flies clinging to the insides of your skull.

  I wish you was my mummy.

  In the vest top that Terri was wearing today, her scarred arm, neck and upper back were fully exposed, swirled into unnatural folds and creases like melted ice cream. She had spent six weeks in the burns unit of South West General when she was eleven.

  ('How did it happen, love?' asked the mother of the child in the next bed.

  Her father had thrown a pan of burning chip fat at her. Her Human League T-shirt had caught fire.

  ''Naccident,' Terri muttered. It was what she had told everyone, including the social worker and the nurses. She would no sooner have shopped her father than chosen to burn alive.

  Her mother had walked out shortly after Terri's eleventh birthday, leaving all three daughters behind. Danielle and Cheryl had moved in with their boyfriends' families within days. Terri had been the only one left, trying to make chips for her father, clinging to the hope that her mother would come back. Even through the agony and the terror of those first days and nights in the hospital, she had been glad it had happened, because she was sure that her mum would hear about it and come and get her. Every time there was movement at the end of the ward, Terri's heart would leap.

  But in six long weeks of pain and loneliness, the only visitor had been Nana Cath. Through quiet afternoons and evenings, Nana Cath had come to sit beside her granddaughter, reminding her to say thank you to the nurses, grim-faced and strict, yet leaking unexpected tenderness.

  She brought Terri a cheap plastic doll in a shiny black mac, but when Terri undressed her, she had nothing on underneath.

  'She's got no knickers, Nana. '

  And Nana Cath had giggled. Nana Cath never giggled.

  I wish you was my mummy.

  She had wanted Nana Cath to take her home. She had asked her to, and Nana Cath had agreed. Sometimes Terri thought that those weeks in hospital had been the happiest of her life, even with the pain. It had been so safe, and people had been kind to her and looked after her. She had thought that she was going home with Nana Cath, to the house with the pretty net curtains, and not back to her father; not back to the bedroom door flying open in the night, banging off the David Essex poster Cheryl had left behind, and her father with his hand on his fly, approaching the bed where she begged him not to . . . )

  The adult Terri threw the smoking filter of the cigarette stub down onto the kitchen floor and strode to her front door. She needed more than nicotine. Down the path and along the street she marched, walking in the same direction as Cheryl. Out of the corner of her eye she saw them, two of her neighbours chatting on the pavement, watching her go by. Like a fucking picture? It'll last longer. Terri knew that she was a perennial subject of gossip; she knew what they said about her; they shouted it after her sometimes. The stuck-up bitch next door was forever whining to the council about the state of Terri's garden. Fuck them, fuck them, fuck them . . .

  She was jogging along, trying to outrun the memories.

  You don't even know who the father is, do yeh, yer whore? I'm washin' my 'ands of yeh, Terri, I've 'ad enough.

  That had been the last time they had ever spoken, and Nana Cath had called her what everyone else called her, and
Terri had responded in kind.

  Fuck you, then, you miserable old cow, fuck you.

  She had never said, 'You let me down, Nana Cath. ' She had never said, 'Why didn't you keep me?' She had never said, 'I loved you more than anyone, Nana Cath. '

  She hoped to God Obbo was back. He was supposed to be back today; today or tomorrow. She had to have some. She had to.

  'All righ', Terri?'

  'Seen Obbo?' she asked the boy who was smoking and drinking on the wall outside the off licence. The scars on her back felt as though they were burning again.

  He shook his head, chewing, leering at her. She hurried on. Nagging thoughts of the social worker, of Krystal, of Robbie: more buzzing flies, but they were like the staring neighbours, judges all; they did not understand the terrible urgency of her need.

  (Nana Cath had collected her from the hospital and taken her home to the spare room. It had been the cleanest, prettiest room Terri had ever slept in. On each of the three evenings she had spent there, she had sat up in bed after Nana Cath had kissed her goodnight, and rearranged the ornaments beside her on the windowsill. There had been a tinkling bunch of glass flowers in a glass vase, a plastic pink paperweight with a shell in it and Terri's favourite, a rearing pottery horse with a silly smile on its face.

  'I like horses,' she had told Nana Cath.

  There had been a school trip to the agricultural show, in the days before Terri's mother had left. The class had met a gigantic black Shire covered in horse brasses. She was the only one brave enough to stroke it. The smell had intoxicated her. She had hugged its column of a leg, ending in the massive feathered white hoof, and felt the living flesh beneath the hair, while her teacher said, 'Careful, Terri, careful!' and the old man with the horse had smiled at her and told her it was quite safe, Samson wouldn't hurt a nice little girl like her.

  The pottery horse was a different colour: yellow with a black mane and tail.

  'You can 'ave it,' Nana Cath told her, and Terri had known true ecstasy.

  But on the fourth morning her father had arrived.

  'You're comin' home,' he had said, and the look on his face had terrified her. 'You're not stayin' with that fuckin' grassin' old cow. No, you ain't. No, you ain't, you little bitch. '

  Nana Cath was as frightened as Terri.

  'Mikey, no,' she kept bleating. Some of the neighbours were peering through the windows. Nana Cath had Terri by one arm, and her father had the other.

  'You're coming home with me!'

  He blacked Nana Cath's eye. He dragged Terri into his car. When he got her back to the house, he beat and kicked every bit of her he could reach. )

  'Seen Obbo?' Terri shouted at Obbo's neighbour, from fifty yards away. 'Is 'e back?'

  'I dunno,' said the woman, turning away.

  (When Michael was not beating Terri, he was doing the other things to her, the things she could not talk about. Nana Cath did not come any more. Terri ran away at thirteen, but not to Nana Cath's; she did not want her father to find her. They caught her anyway, and put her into care. )

  Terri thumped on Obbo's door and waited. She tried again, but nobody came. She sank onto the doorstep, shaking and began to cry.

  Two truanting Winterdown girls glanced at her as they passed.

  'Tha's Krystal Weedon's mum,' one of them said loudly.

  'The prozzie?' the other replied at the top of her voice.

  Terri could not muster the strength to swear at them, because she was crying so hard. Snorting and giggling, the girls strode out of sight.

  'Whore!' one of them called back from the end of the street.