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The Casual Vacancy, Page 23

J. K. Rowling

Part Three Chapter VI



  Things denied, things untold, things hidden and disguised.

  The muddy River Orr gushed over the wreckage of the stolen computer, thrown from the old stone bridge at midnight. Simon limped to work on his fractured toe and told everyone that he had slipped on the garden path. Ruth pressed ice to her bruises and concealed them inexpertly with an old tube of foundation; Andrew's lip scabbed over, like Dane Tully's, and Paul had another nosebleed on the bus and had to go straight to the nurse on arrival at school.

  Shirley Mollison, who had been shopping in Yarvil, did not answer Ruth's repeated telephone calls until late afternoon, by which time Ruth's sons had arrived home from school. Andrew listened to the one-sided conversation from the stairs outside the sitting room. He knew that Ruth was trying to take care of the problem before Simon came home, because Simon was more than capable of seizing the receiver from her and shouting and swearing at her friend.

  '. . . just silly lies,' she was saying brightly, 'but we'd be very grateful if you could remove it, Shirley. '

  He scowled and the cut on his fat lip threatened to burst open again. He hated hearing his mother asking the woman for a favour. In that moment he was irrationally annoyed that the post had not been taken down already; then he remembered that he had written it, that he had caused everything: his mother's battered face, his own cut lip and the atmosphere of dread that pervaded the house at the prospect of Simon's return.

  'I do understand you've got a lot of things on . . . ' Ruth was saying cravenly, 'but you can see how this might do Simon damage, if people believe . . . '

  'Yes. ' Ruth sounded tired. 'She's going to take those things about Dad off the site so, hopefully, that'll be the end of it. '

  Andrew knew his mother to be intelligent, and much handier around the house than his ham-fisted father. She was capable of earning her own living.

  'Why didn't she take the post down straight away, if you're friends?' he asked, following her into the kitchen. For the first time in his life, his pity for Ruth was mingled with a feeling of frustration that amounted to anger.

  'She's been busy,' snapped Ruth.

  One of her eyes was bloodshot from Simon's punch.

  'Did you tell her she could be in trouble for leaving defamatory stuff on there, if she moderates the boards? We did that stuff in comput - '

  'I've told you, she's taking it down, Andrew,' said Ruth angrily.

  She was not frightened of showing temper to her sons. Was it because they did not hit her, or for some other reason? Andrew knew that her face must ache as badly as his own.

  'So who d'you reckon wrote that stuff about Dad?' he asked her recklessly.

  She turned a face of fury upon him.

  'I don't know,' she said, 'but whoever they are, it was a despicable, cowardly thing to do. Everyone's got something they'd like to hide. How would it be if Dad put some of the things he knows about other people on the internet? But he wouldn't do it. '

  'That'd be against his moral code, would it?' said Andrew.

  'You don't know your father as well as you think you do!' shouted Ruth with tears in her eyes. 'Get out - go and do your homework - I don't care - just get out!'

  Yet the deletion of the post could not remove it from the consciousness of those who were passionately interested in the forthcoming contest for Barry's seat. Parminder Jawanda had copied the message about Simon Price onto her computer, and kept opening it, subjecting each sentence to the scrutiny of a forensic scientist examining fibres on a corpse, searching for traces of Howard Mollison's literary DNA. He would have done all he could to disguise his distinctive phraseology, but she was sure that she recognized his pomposity in 'Mr Price is certainly no stranger to keeping down costs', and in 'the benefit of his many useful contacts'.

  'Minda, you don't know Simon Price,' said Tessa Wall. She and Colin were having supper with the Jawandas in the Old Vicarage kitchen, and Parminder had started on the subject of the post almost the moment they had crossed the threshold. 'He's a very unpleasant man and he could have upset any number of people. I honestly don't think it's Howard Mollison. I can't see him doing anything so obvious. '

  'Don't kid yourself, Tessa,' said Parminder. 'Howard will do anything to make sure Miles is elected. You watch. He'll go for Colin next. '

  Tessa saw Colin's knuckles whiten on his fork handle, and wished that Parminder would think before she spoke. She, of anyone, knew what Colin was like; she prescribed his Prozac.

  Vikram was sitting at the end of the table in silence. His beautiful face fell naturally into a slightly sardonic smile. Tessa had always been intimidated by the surgeon, as she was by all very good-looking men. Although Parminder was one of Tessa's best friends, she barely knew Vikram, who worked long hours and involved himself much less in Pagford matters than his wife.

  'I told you about the agenda, didn't I?' Parminder rattled on. 'For the next meeting? He's proposing a motion on the Fields, for us to pass to the Yarvil committee doing the boundary review, and a resolution on forcing the drug clinic out of their building. He's trying to rush it all through, while Barry's seat's empty. '

  She kept leaving the table to fetch things, opening more cupboard doors than was necessary, distracted and unfocused. Twice she forgot why she had got up, and sat down again, empty-handed. Vikram watched her, everywhere she moved, from beneath his thick eyelashes.

  'I rang Howard last night,' Parminder said, 'and I told him we ought to wait until we're back up to the full complement of councillors before we vote on such big issues. He laughed; he says we can't wait. Yarvil wants to hear our views, he said, with the boundary review coming up. What he's really scared of is that Colin's going to win Barry's seat, because it won't be so easy to foist it all on us then. I've emailed everyone I think will vote with us, to see if they can't put pressure on him to delay the votes, for one meeting . . .

  '"The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother",' Parminder added breathlessly. 'The bastard. He's not using Barry's death to beat him. Not if I can help it. '

  Tessa thought she saw Vikram's lips twitch. Old Pagford, led by Howard Mollison, generally forgave Vikram the crimes that it could not forget in his wife: brownness, cleverness and affluence (all of which, to Shirley Mollison's nostrils, had the whiff of a gloat). It was, Tessa thought, grossly unfair: Parminder worked hard at every aspect of her Pagford life: school f??tes and sponsored bakes, the local surgery and the Parish Council, and her reward was implacable dislike from the Pagford old guard; Vikram, who rarely joined or participated in anything, was fawned upon, flattered and spoken of with proprietary approval.

  'Mollison's a megalomaniac,' Parminder said, pushing food nervously around her plate. 'A bully and a megalomaniac. '

  Vikram laid down his knife and fork and sat back in his chair.

  'So why,' he asked, 'is he happy being chair of the Parish Council? Why hasn't he tried to get on the District Council?'

  'Because he thinks that Pagford is the epicentre of the universe,' snapped Parminder. 'You don't understand: he wouldn't swap being chair of Pagford Parish Council for being Prime Minister. Anyway, he doesn't need to be on the council in Yarvil; he's already got Aubrey Fawley there, pushing through the big agenda. All revved up for the boundary review. They're working together. '

  Parminder felt Barry's absence like a ghost at the table. He would have explained it all to Vikram and made him laugh in the process; Barry had been a superb mimic of Howard's speech patterns, of his rolling, waddling walk, of his sudden gastrointestinal interruptions.

  'I keep telling her, she's letting herself get too stressed,' Vikram told Tessa, who was appalled to find herself blushing slightly, with his dark eyes upon her. 'You know about this stupid complaint - the old woman with emphysema?'

  'Yes, Tessa knows. Everyone knows. Do we have to discuss it at the dinner table?' snapped Parminder, and she jumped to her feet and began clearing
the plates.

  Tessa tried to help, but Parminder told her crossly to stay where she was. Vikram gave Tessa a small smile of solidarity that made her stomach flutter. She could not help remembering, as Parminder clattered around the table, that Vikram and Parminder had had an arranged marriage.

  ('It's only an introduction through the family,' Parminder had told her, in the early days of their friendship, defensive and annoyed at something she had seen in Tessa's face. 'Nobody makes you marry, you know. '

  But she had spoken, at other times, of the immense pressure from her mother to take a husband.

  'All Sikh parents want their kids married. It's an obsession,' Parminder said bitterly. )

  Colin saw his plate snatched away without regret. The nausea churning in his stomach was even worse than when he and Tessa had arrived. He might have been encased in a thick glass bubble, so separate did he feel from his three dining companions. It was a sensation with which he was only too familiar, that of walking in a giant sphere of worry, enclosed by it, watching his own terrors roll by, obscuring the outside world.

  Tessa was no help: she was being deliberately cool and unsympathetic about his campaign for Barry's seat. The whole point of this supper was so that Colin could consult Parminder on the little leaflets he had produced, advertising his candidacy. Tessa was refusing to get involved, blocking discussion of the fear that was slowly engulfing him. She was refusing him an outlet.

  Trying to emulate her coolness, pretending that he was not, after all, caving under self-imposed pressure, he had not told her about the telephone call from the Yarvil and District Gazette that he had received at school that day. The journalist on the end of the line had wanted to talk about Krystal Weedon.

  Had he touched her?

  Colin had told the woman that the school could not possibly discuss a pupil and that Krystal must be approached through her parents.

  'I've already talked to Krystal,' said the voice on the end of the line. 'I only wanted to get your - '

  But he had put the receiver down, and terror had blotted out everything.

  Why did they want to talk about Krystal? Why had they called him? Had he done something? Had he touched her? Had she complained?

  The psychologist had taught him not to try and confirm or disprove the content of such thoughts. He was supposed to acknowledge their existence, then carry on as normal, but it was like trying not to scratch the worst itch you had ever known. The public unveiling of Simon Price's dirty secrets on the council website had stunned him: the terror of exposure, which had dominated so much of Colin's life, now wore a face, its features those of an ageing cherub, with a demonic brain seething beneath a deerstalker on tight grey curls, behind bulging inquisitive eyes. He kept remembering Barry's tales of the delicatessen owner's formidable strategic brain, and of the intricate web of alliances that bound the sixteen members of Pagford Parish Council.

  Colin had often imagined how he would find out that the game was up: a guarded article in the paper; faces turned away from him when he entered Mollison and Lowe's; the headmistress calling him into her office for a quiet word. He had visualized his downfall a thousand times: his shame exposed and hung around his neck like a leper's bell, so that no concealment would be possible, ever again. He would be sacked. He might end up in prison.

  'Colin,' Tessa prompted quietly; Vikram was offering him wine.

  She knew what was going on inside that big domed forehead; not the specifics, but the theme of his anxiety had been constant for years. She knew that Colin could not help it; it was the way he was made. Many years before, she had read, and recognized as true, the words of W. B. Yeats: 'A pity beyond all telling is hid at the heart of love. ' She had smiled over the poem, and stroked the page, because she had known both that she loved Colin, and that compassion formed a huge part of her love.

  Sometimes, though, her patience wore thin. Sometimes she wanted a little concern and reassurance too. Colin had erupted into a predictable panic when she had told him that she had received a firm diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, but once she had convinced him that she was not in imminent danger of dying, she had been taken aback by how quickly he dropped the subject, how completely he reimmersed himself in his election plans.

  (That morning, at breakfast, she had tested her blood sugar with the glucometer for the first time, then taken out the prefilled needle and inserted it into her own belly. It had hurt much more than when deft Parminder did it.

  Fats had seized his cereal bowl and swung round in his chair away from her, sloshing milk over the table, the sleeve of his school shirt and onto the kitchen floor. Colin had let out an inchoate shout of annoyance as Fats spat his mouthful of cornflakes back into his bowl, and demanded of his mother, 'Have you got to do that at the bloody table?'

  'Don't be so damn rude and disgusting!' shouted Colin. 'Sit up properly! Wipe up that mess! How dare you speak to your mother like that? Apologize!'

  Tessa withdrew the needle too fast; she had made herself bleed.

  'I'm sorry that you shooting up at breakfast makes me want to puke, Tess,' said Fats from under the table, where he was wiping the floor with a bit of kitchen roll.

  'Your mother isn't "shooting up", she's got a medical condition!' shouted Colin. 'And don't call her "Tess"!'

  'I know you don't like needles, Stu,' said Tessa, but her eyes were stinging; she had hurt herself, and felt shaken and angry with both of them, feelings that were still with her this evening. )

  Tessa wondered why Parminder did not appreciate Vikram's concern. Colin never noticed when she was stressed. Perhaps, Tessa thought angrily, there's something in this arranged marriage business . . . my mother certainly wouldn't have chosen Colin for me . . .

  Parminder was shoving bowls of cut fruit across the table for pudding. Tessa wondered a little resentfully what she would have offered a guest who was not diabetic, and comforted herself with the thought of a bar of chocolate lying at home in the fridge.

  Parminder, who had talked five times as much as anybody else all through supper, had started ranting about her daughter, Sukhvinder. She had already told Tessa on the telephone about the girl's betrayal; she went through it all again at the table.

  'Waitressing with Howard Mollison. I don't, I really don't know what she's thinking. But Vikram - '

  'They don't think, Minda,' Colin proclaimed, breaking his long silence. 'That's teenagers. They don't care. They're all the same. '

  'Colin, what rubbish,' snapped Tessa. 'They aren't all the same at all. We'd be delighted if Stu went and got himself a Saturday job - not that there's the remotest chance of that. '

  ' - but Vikram doesn't mind,' Parminder pressed on, ignoring the interruption. 'He can't see anything wrong with it, can you?'

  Vikram answered easily: 'It's work experience. She probably won't make university; there's no shame in it. It's not for everyone. I can see Jolly married early, quite happy. '

  'Waitressing . . . '

  'Well, they can't all be academic, can they?'

  'No, she certainly isn't academic,' said Parminder, who was almost quivering with anger and tension. 'Her marks are absolutely atrocious - no aspiration, no ambition - waitressing - "let's face it, I'm not going to get into uni" - no, you certainly won't, with that attitude - with Howard Mollison . . . oh, he must have absolutely loved it - my daughter going cap in hand for a job. What was she thinking - what was she thinking?'

  'You wouldn't like it if Stu took a job with someone like Mollison,' Colin told Tessa.

  'I wouldn't care,' said Tessa. 'I'd be thrilled he was showing any kind of work ethic. As far as I can tell, all he seems to care about is computer games and - '

  But Colin did not know that Stuart smoked; she broke off, and Colin said, 'Actually, this would be exactly the kind of thing Stuart would do. Insinuate himself with somebody he knew we didn't like, to get at us. He'd love that. '

  'For goodness sake, Colin, Sukhvinde
r isn't trying to get at Minda,' said Tessa.

  'So you think I'm being unreasonable?' Parminder shot at Tessa.

  'No, no,' said Tessa, appalled at how quickly they had been sucked into the family row. 'I'm just saying, there aren't many places for kids to work in Pagford, are there?'

  'And why does she need to work at all?' said Parminder, raising her hands in a gesture of furious exasperation. 'Don't we give her enough money?'

  'Money you earn yourself is always different, you know that,' said Tessa.

  Tessa's chair faced a wall that was covered in photographs of the Jawanda children. She had sat here often, and had counted how many appearances each child made: Jaswant, eighteen; Rajpal, nineteen; and Sukhvinder, nine. There was only one photograph on the wall celebrating Sukhvinder's individual achievements: the picture of the Winterdown rowing team on the day that they had beaten St Anne's. Barry had given all the parents an enlarged copy of this picture, in which Sukhvinder and Krystal Weedon were in the middle of the line of eight, with their arms around each other's shoulders, beaming and jumping up and down so that they were both slightly blurred.

  Barry, she thought, would have helped Parminder see things the right way. He had been a bridge between mother and daughter, both of whom had adored him.

  Not for the first time, Tessa wondered how much difference it made that she had not given birth to her son. Did she find it easier to accept him as a separate individual than if he had been made from her flesh and blood? Her glucose-heavy, tainted blood . . .

  Fats had recently stopped calling her 'Mum'. She had to pretend not to care, because it made Colin so angry; but every time Fats said 'Tessa' it was like a needle jab to her heart.

  The four of them finished their cold fruit in silence.