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The Casual Vacancy, Page 21

J. K. Rowling

Part Three Chapter IV



  'Very sad,' said Howard Mollison, rocking a little on his toes in front of his mantelpiece. 'Very sad indeed. '

  Maureen had just finished telling them all about Catherine Weedon's death; she had heard everything from her friend Karen the receptionist that evening, including the complaint from Cath Weedon's granddaughter. A look of delighted disapproval was crumpling her face; Samantha, who was in a very bad mood, thought she resembled a monkey nut. Miles was making conventional sounds of surprise and pity, but Shirley was staring up at the ceiling with a bland expression on her face; she hated it when Maureen held centre stage with news that she ought to have heard first.

  'My mother knew the family of old,' Howard told Samantha, who already knew it. 'Neighbours in Hope Street. Cath was decent enough in her way, you know. The house was always spotless, and she worked until she was into her sixties. Oh, yes, she was one of the world's grafters, Cath Weedon, whatever the rest of the family became. '

  Howard was enjoying giving credit where credit was due.

  'The husband lost his job when they closed the steelworks. Hard drinker. No, she didn't always have it easy, Cath. '

  Samantha was barely managing to look interested, but fortunately Maureen interrupted.

  'And the Gazette's on to Dr Jawanda!' she croaked. 'Imagine how she must be feeling, now the paper's got it! Family's kicking up a stink - well, you can't blame them, alone in that house for three days. D'you know her, Howard? Which one is Danielle Fowler?'

  Shirley got up and stalked out of the room in her apron. Samantha slugged a little more wine, smiling.

  'Let's think, let's think,' said Howard. He prided himself on knowing almost everyone in Pagford, but the later generations of Weedons belonged more to Yarvil. 'Can't be a daughter, she had four boys, Cath. Granddaughter, I expect. '

  'And she wants an inquiry,' said Maureen. 'Well, it was always going to come to this. It's been on the cards. If anything, I'm surprised it's taken this long. Dr Jawanda wouldn't give the Hubbards' son antibiotics and he ended up hospitalized for his asthma. Do you know, did she train in India, or - ?'

  Shirley, who was listening from the kitchen while she stirred the gravy, felt irritated, as she always did, by Maureen's monopolization of the conversation; that, at least, was how Shirley put it to herself. Determined not to return to the room until Maureen had finished, Shirley turned into the study and checked to see whether anyone had sent in apologies for the next Parish Council meeting; as secretary, she was already putting together the agenda.

  'Howard - Miles - come and look at this!'

  Shirley's voice had lost its usual soft, flutey quality; it rang out shrilly.

  Howard waddled out of the sitting room followed by Miles, who was still in the suit he had worn all day at work. Maureen's droopy, bloodshot, heavily mascara-ed eyes were fixed on the empty doorway like a bloodhound's; her hunger to know what Shirley had found or seen was almost palpable. Maureen's fingers, a clutch of bulging knuckles covered in translucent leopard-spotted skin, slid the crucifix and wedding ring up and down the chain around her neck. The deep creases running from the corners of Maureen's mouth to her chin always reminded Samantha of a ventriloquist's dummy.

  Why are you always here? Samantha asked the older woman loudly, inside her own head. You couldn't make me lonely enough to live in Howard and Shirley's pocket.

  Disgust rose in Samantha like vomit. She wanted to seize the over-warm cluttered room and mash it between her hands, until the royal china, and the gas fire, and the gilt-framed pictures of Miles broke into jagged pieces; then, with wizened and painted Maureen trapped and squalling inside the wreckage, she wanted to heave it, like a celestial shot-putter, away into the sunset. The crushed lounge and the doomed crone inside it, soared in her imagination through the heavens, plunging into the limitless ocean, leaving Samantha alone in the endless stillness of the universe.

  She had had a terrible afternoon. There had been another frightening conversation with her accountant; she could not remember much of her drive home from Yarvil. She would have liked to offload on Miles, but after dumping his briefcase and pulling off his tie in the hall he had said, 'You haven't started dinner yet, have you?'

  He sniffed the air ostentatiously, then answered himself.

  'No, you haven't. Well, good, because Mum and Dad have invited us over. ' And before she could protest, he had added sharply, 'It's nothing to do with the council. It's to discuss arrangements for Dad's sixty-fifth. '

  Anger was almost a relief; it eclipsed her anxiety, her fear. She had followed Miles out to the car, cradling her sense of ill-usage. When he asked, at last, on the corner of Evertree Crescent, 'How was your day?' she answered, 'Absolutely bloody fantastic. '

  'Wonder what's up?' said Maureen, breaking the silence in the sitting room.

  Samantha shrugged. It was typical of Shirley to have summoned her menfolk and left the women in limbo; Samantha was not going to give her mother-in-law the satisfaction of showing interest.

  Howard's elephantine footsteps made the floorboards under the hall carpet creak. Maureen's mouth was slack with anticipation.

  'Well, well, well,' boomed Howard, lumbering back into the room.

  'I was checking the council website for apologies,' said Shirley, a little breathless in his wake. 'For the next meeting - '

  'Someone's posted accusations about Simon Price,' Miles told Samantha, pressing past his parents, seizing the role of announcer.

  'What kind of accusations?' asked Samantha.

  'Receiving stolen goods,' said Howard, firmly reclaiming the spotlight, 'and diddling his bosses at the printworks. '

  Samantha was pleased to find herself unmoved. She had only the haziest idea who Simon Price was.

  'They've posted under a pseudonym,' Howard continued, 'and it's not a particularly tasteful pseudonym, either. '

  'Rude, you mean?' Samantha asked. 'Big-Fat-Cock or something?'

  Howard's laughter boomed through the room, Maureen gave an affected shriek of horror, but Miles scowled and Shirley looked furious.

  'Not quite that, Sammy, no,' said Howard. 'No, they've called themselves "The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother". '

  'Oh,' said Samantha, her grin evaporating. She did not like that. After all, she had been in the ambulance while they had forced needles and tubes into Barry's collapsed body; she had watched him dying beneath the plastic mask; seen Mary clinging to his hand, heard her groans and sobs.

  'Oh, no, that's not nice,' said Maureen, relish in her bullfrog's voice. 'No, that's nasty. Putting words into the mouths of the dead. Taking names in vain. That's not right. '

  'No,' agreed Howard. Almost absent-mindedly, he strolled across the room, picked up the wine bottle and returned to Samantha, topping up her empty glass. 'But someone out there doesn't care about good taste it seems, if they can put Simon Price out of the running. '

  'If you're thinking what I think you're thinking, Dad,' said Miles, 'wouldn't they have gone for me rather than Price?'

  'How do you know they haven't, Miles?'

  'Meaning?' asked Miles swiftly.

  'Meaning,' said Howard, the happy cynosure of all eyes, 'that I got sent an anonymous letter about you a couple of weeks ago. Nothing specific. Just said you were unfit to fill Fairbrother's shoes. I'd be very surprised if the letter didn't come from the same source as the online post. The Fairbrother theme in both, you see?'

  Samantha tilted her glass a little too enthusiastically, so that wine trickled down the sides of her chin, exactly where her own ventriloquist's doll grooves would no doubt appear in time. She mopped her face with her sleeve.

  'Where is this letter?' asked Miles, striving not to look rattled.

  'I shredded it. It was anonymous; it didn't count. '

  'We didn't want to upset you, dear,' said Shirley, and she patted Miles' arm.

  'Anyway, they can
't have anything on you,' Howard reassured his son, 'or they'd have dished the dirt, the same as they have on Price. '

  'Simon Price's wife is a lovely girl,' said Shirley with gentle regret. 'I can't believe Ruth knows anything about it, if her husband's been on the fiddle. She's a friend from the hospital,' Shirley elaborated to Maureen. 'An agency nurse. '

  'She wouldn't be the first wife who hasn't spotted what's going on under her nose,' retorted Maureen, trumping insider knowledge with worldly wisdom.

  'Absolutely brazen, using Barry Fairbrother's name,' said Shirley, pretending not to have heard Maureen. 'Not a thought for his widow, his family. All that matters is their agenda; they'll sacrifice anything to it. '

  'Shows you what we're up against,' said Howard. He scratched the overfold of his belly, thinking. 'Strategically, it's smart. I saw from the get-go that Price was going to split the pro-Fields vote. No flies on Bends-Your-Ear; she's realized it too and she wants him out. '

  'But,' said Samantha, 'it mightn't have anything to do with Parminder and that lot at all. It could be from someone we don't know, someone who's got a grudge against Simon Price. '

  'Oh, Sam,' said Shirley, with a tinkling laugh, shaking her head. 'It's easy to see you're new to politics. '

  Oh, fuck off, Shirley.

  'So why have they used Barry Fairbrother's name, then?' asked Miles, rounding on his wife.

  'Well, it's on the website, isn't it? It's his vacant seat. '

  'And who's going to trawl through the council website for that kind of information? No,' he said gravely, 'this is an insider. '

  An insider . . . Libby had once told Samantha that there could be thousands of microscopic species inside one drop of pond water. They were all perfectly ridiculous, Samantha thought, sitting here in front of Shirley's commemorative plates as if they were in the Cabinet Room in Downing Street, as though one bit of tittle-tattle on a Parish Council website constituted an organized campaign, as though any of it mattered.

  Consciously and defiantly, Samantha withdrew her attention from the lot of them. She fixed her eyes on the window and the clear evening sky beyond, and she thought about Jake, the muscular boy in Libby's favourite band. At lunchtime today, Samantha had gone out for sandwiches, and brought back a music magazine in which Jake and his bandmates were interviewed. There were lots of pictures.

  'It's for Libby,' Samantha had told the girl who helped her in the shop.

  'Wow, look at that. I wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating toast,' replied Carly, pointing at Jake, naked from the waist up, his head thrown back to reveal that thick strong neck. 'Oh, but he's only twenty-one, look. I'm not a cradle-snatcher. '

  Carly was twenty-six. Samantha did not care to subtract Jake's age from her own. She had eaten her sandwich and read the interview, and studied all the pictures. Jake with his hands on a bar above his head, biceps swelling under a black T-shirt; Jake with his white shirt open, abdominal muscles chiselled above the loose waistband of his jeans.

  Samantha drank Howard's wine and stared out at the sky above the black privet hedge, which was a delicate shade of rose pink; the precise shade her nipples had been before they had been darkened and distended by pregnancy and breast-feeding. She imagined herself nineteen to Jake's twenty-one, slender-waisted again, taut curves in the right places, and a strong flat stomach of her own, fitting comfortably into her white, size ten shorts. She vividly recalled how it felt to sit on a young man's lap in those shorts, with the heat and roughness of sun-warmed denim under her bare thighs, and big hands around her lithe waist. She imagined Jake's breath on her neck; she imagined turning to look into the blue eyes, close to the high cheekbones and that firm, carved mouth . . .

  '. . . at the church hall, and we're getting it catered by Bucknoles,' said Howard. 'We've invited everyone: Aubrey and Julia - everyone. With luck it will be a double celebration, you on the council, me, another year young . . . '

  Samantha felt tipsy and randy. When were they going to eat? She realized that Shirley had left the room, hopefully to put food on the table.

  The telephone rang at Samantha's elbow, and she jumped. Before any of them could move, Shirley had bustled back in. She had one hand in a flowery oven glove, and picked up the receiver with the other.

  'Double-two-five-nine?' sang Shirley on a rising inflection. 'Oh . . . hello, Ruth, dear!'

  Howard, Miles and Maureen became rigidly attentive. Shirley turned to look at her husband with intensity, as if she were transmitting Ruth's voice through her eyes into her husband's mind.

  'Yes,' fluted Shirley. 'Yes . . . '

  Samantha, sitting closest to the receiver, could hear the other woman's voice but not make out the words.

  'Oh, really . . . ?'

  Maureen's mouth was hanging open again; she was like an ancient baby bird, or perhaps a pterodactyl, hungering for regurgitated news.

  'Yes, dear, I see . . . oh, that shouldn't be a problem . . . no, no, I'll explain to Howard. No, no trouble at all. '

  Shirley's small hazel eyes had not wavered from Howard's big, popping blue ones.

  'Ruth, dear,' said Shirley, 'Ruth, I don't want to worry you, but have you been on the council website today? . . . Well . . . it's not very nice, but I think you ought to know . . . somebody's posted something nasty about Simon . . . well, I think you'd better read it for yourself, I wouldn't want to . . . all right, dear. All right. See you Wednesday, I hope. Yes. Bye bye. '

  Shirley replaced the receiver.

  'She didn't know,' Miles stated.

  Shirley shook her head.

  'Why was she calling?'

  'Her son,' Shirley told Howard. 'Your new potboy. He's got a peanut allergy. '

  'Very handy, in a delicatessen,' said Howard.

  'She wanted to ask whether you could store a needleful of adrenalin in the fridge for him, just in case,' said Shirley.

  Maureen sniffed.

  'They've all got allergies these days, children. '

  Shirley's ungloved hand was still clutching the receiver. She was subconsciously hoping to feel tremors down the line from Hilltop House.