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The Casual Vacancy, Page 20

J. K. Rowling

Part Three Chapter III



  Gavin could have invited Mary into his office to discuss the most recent exchange of letters with the insurance company, but decided to visit her at home instead. He had kept the late afternoon free of appointments, on the off-chance that she might ask him to stay for something to eat; she was a fantastic cook.

  His instinctive shying away from her naked grief had been dissipated by regular contact. He had always liked Mary, but Barry had eclipsed her in company. Not that she ever appeared to dislike her supporting role; on the contrary, she had seemed delighted to beautify the background, happy laughing at Barry's jokes, happy simply to be with him.

  Gavin doubted that Kay had ever been happy to play second fiddle in her life. Crashing the gears as he drove up Church Row, he thought that Kay would have been outraged by any suggestion that she modify her behaviour or suppress her opinions for the sake of her partner's enjoyment, his happiness or his self-esteem.

  He did not think that he had ever been unhappier in a relationship than he was now. Even in the death throes of the affair with Lisa, there had been temporary truces, laughs, sudden poignant reminders of better times. The situation with Kay was like war. Sometimes he forgot that there was supposed to be any affection between them; did she even like him?

  They had had their worst ever argument by telephone on the morning after Miles and Samantha's dinner party. Eventually, Kay had slammed down the receiver, cutting Gavin off. For a full twenty-four hours he had believed that their relationship was at an end, and although this was what he wanted he had experienced more fear than relief. In his fantasies, Kay simply disappeared back to London, but the reality was that she had tethered herself to Pagford with a job and a daughter at Winterdown. He faced the prospect of bumping into her wherever he went in the tiny town. Perhaps she was already poisoning the well of gossip against him; he imagined her repeating some of the things she had said to him on the telephone to Samantha, or to that nosy old woman in the delicatessen who gave him goose-flesh.

  I uprooted my daughter and left my job and moved house for you, and you treat me like a hooker you don't have to pay.

  People would say that he had behaved badly. Perhaps he had behaved badly. There must have been a crucial point when he ought to have pulled back, but he had not seen it.

  Gavin spent the whole weekend brooding on how it would feel to be seen as the bad guy. He had never been in that position before. After Lisa had left him, everybody had been kind and sympathetic, especially the Fairbrothers. Guilt and dread dogged him until, on Sunday evening, he cracked and called Kay to apologize. Now he was back where he did not want to be, and he hated Kay for it.

  Parking his car in the Fairbrothers' drive, as he had done so often when Barry was alive, he headed for the front door, noticing that somebody had mowed the lawn since he had last called. Mary answered his ring on the doorbell almost instantaneously.

  'Hi, how - Mary, what's wrong?'

  Her whole face was wet, her eyes brimming with diamond-bright tears. She gulped once or twice, shook her head, and then, without quite knowing how it had happened, Gavin found himself holding her in his arms on the doorstep.

  'Mary? Has something happened?'

  He felt her nod. Acutely aware of their exposed position, of the open road behind him, Gavin manoeuvred her inside. She was small and fragile in his arms; her fingers clutched at him, her face pressed into his coat. He relinquished his briefcase as gently as he could, but the sound of it hitting the floor made her withdraw from him, her breath short as she covered her mouth with her hands.

  'I'm sorry . . . I'm sorry . . . oh God, Gav . . . '

  'What's happened?'

  His voice sounded different from usual: forceful, take command, more like the way Miles sometimes talked in a crisis at work.

  'Someone's put . . . I don't . . . someone's put Barry's . . . '

  She beckoned him into the home office, cluttered, shabby and cosy, with Barry's old rowing trophies on the shelves, and a big framed photograph on the wall of eight teenage girls punching the air, with medals around their necks. Mary pointed a trembling finger at the computer screen. Still in his coat, Gavin dropped into the chair and stared at the message board of Pagford Parish Council's website.

  'I w-was in the delicatessen this morning, and Maureen Lowe told me that lots of people had put messages of condolence on the site . . . so I was going to p-post a message to s-say thank you. And - look . . . '

  He spotted it as she spoke. Simon Price Unfit to Stand for Council, posted by The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother.

  'Jesus Christ,' said Gavin in disgust.

  Mary dissolved into tears again. Gavin wanted to put his arms back around her, but was afraid to, especially here, in this snug little room so full of Barry. He compromised by taking hold of her thin wrist and leading her through the hall into the kitchen.

  'You need a drink,' he told her, in that unfamiliarly strong and commanding voice. 'Sod coffee. Where's the proper stuff?'

  But he remembered before she answered; he had seen Barry take the bottles out of the cupboard often enough, so he mixed her a small gin and tonic, which was the only thing he had ever known her drink before dinner.

  'Gav, it's four in the afternoon. '

  'Who gives a damn?' said Gavin, in his new voice. 'Get that down you. '

  An unbalanced laugh broke her sobs; she accepted the glass and sipped. He fetched her kitchen roll to mop her face and eyes.

  'You're so kind, Gav. Don't you want anything? Coffee or . . . or beer?' she asked, on another weak laugh.

  He fetched himself a bottle from the fridge, took off his coat and sat down opposite her at the island in the middle of the room. After a while, when she had drunk most of her gin, she became calm and quiet again, the way he always thought of her.

  'Who d'you think did it?' she asked him.

  'Some total bastard,' said Gavin.

  'They're all fighting over his council seat, now. Squabbling away over the Fields as usual. And he's still in there, putting his two cents in. The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother. Maybe it really is him, posting on the message board?'

  Gavin did not know whether this was meant as a joke, and settled for a slight smile that might be quickly removed.

  'You know, I'd love to think that he's worrying about us, wherever he is; about me and the kids. But I doubt it. I'll bet he's still most worried about Krystal Weedon. Do you know what he'd probably say to me if he was here?'

  She drained her glass. Gavin had not thought that he had mixed the gin very strong, but there were patches of high colour on her cheeks.

  'No,' he said cautiously.

  'He'd tell me that I've got support,' said Mary, and to Gavin's astonishment, he heard anger in the voice he always thought of as gentle. 'Yeah, he'd probably say, "You've got all the family and our friends and the kids to comfort you, but Krystal,"' Mary's voice was becoming louder, '"Krystal's got nobody to look out for her. " D'you know what he spent our wedding anniversary doing?'

  'No,' said Gavin again.

  'Writing an article for the local paper about Krystal. Krystal and the Fields. The bloody Fields. If I never hear them mentioned again, it'll be too soon. I want another gin. I don't drink enough. '

  Gavin picked up her glass automatically and returned to the drinks cupboard, stunned. He had always regarded her and Barry's marriage as literally perfect. Never had it occurred to him that Mary might be other than one hundred per cent approving of every venture and crusade with which the ever-busy Barry concerned himself.

  'Rowing practice in the evenings, driving them to races at the weekends,' she said, over the tinkling of ice he was adding to her glass, 'and most nights he was on the computer, trying to get people to support him about the Fields, and getting stuff on the agenda for council meetings. And everyone always said, "Isn't Barry marvellous, the way he does it all, the way he volunteers, h
e's so involved with the community. "' She took a big gulp of her fresh gin and tonic. 'Yes, marvellous. Absolutely marvellous. Until it killed him. All day long, on our wedding anniversary, struggling to meet that stupid deadline. They haven't even printed it yet. '

  Gavin could not take his eyes off her. Anger and alcohol had restored colour to her face. She was sitting upright, instead of cowed and hunched over, as she had been recently.

  'That's what killed him,' she said clearly, and her voice echoed a little in the kitchen. 'He gave everything to everybody. Except to me. '

  Ever since Barry's funeral, Gavin had dwelled, with a sense of deep inadequacy, on the comparatively small gap that he was sure he would leave behind in his community, should he die. Looking at Mary, he wondered whether it would not be better to leave a huge hole in one person's heart. Had Barry not realized how Mary felt? Had he not realized how lucky he was?

  The front door opened with a loud clatter, and he heard the sound of the four children coming in; voices and footsteps and the thumping of shoes and bags.

  'Hi, Gav,' said eighteen-year-old Fergus, kissing his mother on top of her head. 'Are you drinking, Mum?'

  'It's my fault,' said Gavin. 'Blame me. '

  They were such nice kids, the Fairbrother kids. Gavin liked the way they talked to their mother, hugged her, chatted to each other and to him. They were open, polite and funny. He thought of Gaia, her vicious asides, silences like jagged glass, the snarling way she addressed him.

  'Gav, we haven't even talked about the insurance,' said Mary, as the children surged around the kitchen, finding themselves drinks and snacks.

  'It doesn't matter,' said Gavin, without thinking, before correcting himself hastily; 'shall we go through to the sitting room or . . . ?'

  'Yes, let's. '

  She wobbled a little getting down from the high kitchen stool, and he caught her arm again.

  'Are you staying for dinner, Gav?' called Fergus.

  'Do, if you want to,' said Mary.

  A surge of warmth flooded him.

  'I'd love to,' he said. 'Thanks. '