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The Casual Vacancy, Page 26

J. K. Rowling

Part Three Chapter IX



  Kay Bawden never wanted to set foot in Miles and Samantha's house again. She could not forgive them for witnessing Gavin's parade of indifference, nor could she forget Miles' patronizing laughter, his attitude to Bellchapel, or the sneery way that he and Samantha had spoken about Krystal Weedon.

  In spite of Gavin's apology and his tepid assurances of affection, Kay could not stop picturing him nose to nose with Mary on the sofa; jumping up to help her with the plates; walking her home in the dark. When Gavin told her, a few days later, that he had had dinner at Mary's house, she had to fight down an angry response, because he had never eaten more than toast at her house in Hope Street.

  She might not be allowed to say anything bad about The Widow, about whom Gavin spoke as though she were the Holy Mother, but the Mollisons were different.

  'I can't say I like Miles very much. '

  'He's not exactly my best mate. '

  'If you ask me, it'll be a catastrophe for the addiction clinic if he gets elected. '

  'I doubt it'll make any difference. '

  Gavin's apathy, his indifference to other people's pain, always infuriated Kay.

  'Isn't there anyone who'll stick up for Bellchapel?'

  'Colin Wall, I suppose,' said Gavin.

  So, at eight o'clock on Monday evening, Kay walked up the Walls' drive and rang their doorbell. From the front step, she could make out Samantha Mollison's red Ford Fiesta, parked in the drive three houses along. The sight added a little extra zest to her desire for a fight.

  The Walls' door was opened by a short plain dumpy woman in a tie-dyed skirt.

  'Hello,' said Kay. 'My name's Kay Bawden, and I was wondering whether I could speak to Colin Wall?'

  For a split second, Tessa simply stared at the attractive young woman on the doorstep whom she had never seen before. The strangest idea flashed across her mind: that Colin was having an affair and that his lover had come to tell her so.

  'Oh - yes - come in. I'm Tessa. '

  Kay wiped her feet conscientiously on the doormat and followed Tessa into a sitting room that was smaller, shabbier but cosier than the Mollisons'. A tall, balding man with a high forehead was sitting in an armchair with a notebook in his lap and a pen in his hand.

  'Colin, this is Kay Bawden,' said Tessa. 'She'd like to speak to you. '

  Tessa saw Colin's startled and wary expression, and knew at once that the woman was a stranger to him. Really, she thought, a little ashamed, what were you thinking?

  'I'm sorry to barge in on you like this, unannounced,' said Kay, as Colin stood up to shake her hand. 'I would have telephoned, but you're - '

  'We're ex-directory, yes,' said Colin. He towered over Kay, his eyes tiny behind the lenses of his glasses. 'Please, sit down. '

  'Thank you. It's about the election,' said Kay. 'This Parish Council election. You're standing, aren't you, against Miles Mollison?'

  'That's right,' said Colin nervously. He knew who she must be: the reporter who had wanted to talk to Krystal. They had tracked him down - Tessa ought not to have let her in.

  'I was wondering whether I could help in any way,' said Kay. 'I'm a social worker, mostly working in the Fields. There are some facts and figures I could give you about the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic, which Mollison seems quite keen on closing. I've been told that you're for the clinic? That you'd like to keep it open?'

  The onrush of relief and pleasure made him almost giddy.

  'Oh, yes,' said Colin, 'yes, I would. Yes, that was my predecessor's - that's to say, the previous holder of the seat - Barry Fairbrother - was certainly opposed to closing the clinic. And I am, too. '

  'Well, I've had a conversation with Miles Mollison, and he made it quite clear that he doesn't think the clinic's worth keeping open. Frankly, I think he's rather ignorant and naive about the causes and treatment of addiction, and about the very real difference Bellchapel is making. If the Parish refuses to renew the lease on the building, and the District cuts funding, then there's a danger that some very vulnerable people will be left without support. '

  'Yes, yes, I see,' said Colin. 'Oh, yes, I agree. '

  He was astonished and flattered that this attractive young woman would have walked through the evening to find him and offer herself as an ally.

  'Would you like a cup of tea or coffee, Kay?' asked Tessa.

  'Oh, thanks very much,' said Kay. 'Tea, please, Tessa. No sugar. '

  Fats was in the kitchen, helping himself from the fridge. He ate copiously and continually, but remained scrawny, never putting on an ounce of weight. In spite of his openly declared disgust for them, he seemed unaffected by Tessa's pack of ready-filled syringes, which sat in a clinical white box next to the cheese.

  Tessa moved to the kettle, and her thoughts returned to the subject that had consumed her ever since Sukhvinder had suggested it earlier: that Fats and Krystal were 'seeing each other'. She had not questioned Fats, and she had not told Colin.

  The more that Tessa thought about it, the more certain she was that it could not be true. She was sure that Fats held himself in such high regard that no girl would be good enough, especially a girl like Krystal. Surely he would not . . .

  Demean himself? Is that it? Is that what you think?

  'Who's here?' Fats asked Tessa, through a mouthful of cold chicken, as she put on the kettle.

  'A woman who wants to help Dad get elected to the council,' replied Tessa, foraging in the cupboard for biscuits.

  'Why? Does she fancy him?'

  'Grow up, Stu,' said Tessa crossly.

  He plucked several slices of thin ham out of an open pack and poked them, bit by bit, into his crammed mouth, like a magician inserting silk handkerchiefs into his fist. Fats sometimes stood for ten minutes at a time at the open fridge, ripping open clingfilm and packets and putting chunks of food directly into his mouth. It was a habit Colin deprecated, along with almost every other aspect of Fats' behaviour.

  'Why's she want to help him, seriously?' he asked, having swallowed his mouthful of meat.

  'She wants the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic to stay open. '

  'What, a junkie, is she?'

  'No, she isn't a junkie,' said Tessa, noting with annoyance that Fats had finished the last three chocolate biscuits and left the empty wrappings on the shelf. 'She's a social worker, and she thinks the clinic is doing a good job. Dad wants to keep it open, but Miles Mollison doesn't think it's very effective. '

  'It can't be doing that well. The Fields are full of glue-sniffers and smackheads. '

  Tessa knew that if she had said that Colin wanted to close the clinic, Fats would have instantly produced an argument for its continuation.

  'You ought to be a barrister, Stu,' she said as the kettle lid started to rattle.

  When Tessa returned to the sitting room with her tray, she found Kay talking Colin through a sheaf of printed material she had brought out of her big tote bag.

  '. . . two drugs workers part-funded by the council, and partly by Action on Addiction, which is a really good charity. Then there's a social worker attached to the clinic, Nina, she's the one who gave me all this - oh, thanks very much,' said Kay, beaming up at Tessa, who had set down a mug of tea on the table beside her.

  Kay had taken to the Walls, in just a few minutes, as she had not taken to anybody else in Pagford. There had been no sweeping up-and-down glance from Tessa as she walked in, no gimlet-eyed assessment of her physical imperfections and dress sense. Her husband, though nervous, seemed decent and earnest in his determination to obstruct the abandonment of the Fields.

  'Is that a London accent, Kay?' asked Tessa, dunking a plain biscuit in her tea. Kay nodded.

  'What brings you to Pagford?'

  'A relationship,' said Kay. She took no pleasure saying it, even though she and Gavin were officially reconciled. She turned back to Colin.

  'I do
n't quite understand the situation with regards to the Parish Council and the clinic. '

  'Oh, it owns the building,' said Colin. 'It's an old church. The lease is coming up for renewal. '

  'So that would be an easy way to force them out. '

  'Exactly. When did you say you'd spoken to Miles Mollison?' asked Colin, both hoping and dreading to hear that Miles had mentioned him.

  'We had dinner, Friday before last,' Kay explained, 'Gavin and I - '

  'Oh, you're Gavin's girlfriend!' interjected Tessa.

  'Yes; and, anyway, the subject of the Fields came up - '

  'It would,' said Tessa.

  ' - and Miles mentioned Bellchapel, and I was quite - quite dismayed by the way he talked about the issues involved. I told him I'm dealing with a family at the moment,' Kay remembered her indiscreet mention of the Weedons' names and proceeded carefully, 'and if the mother is deprived of methadone, she'll almost certainly end up back on the game. '

  'That sounds like the Weedons,' said Tessa, with a lowering sensation.

  'I - yes, I am talking about the Weedons, actually,' said Kay.

  Tessa reached for another biscuit.

  'I'm Krystal's guidance teacher. This must be the second time her mother's been through Bellchapel, is it?'

  'Third,' said Kay.

  'We've known Krystal since she was five: she was in our son's class at primary school,' Tessa said. 'She's had an awful life, really. '

  'Absolutely,' said Kay. 'It's astounding she's as sweet as she is, actually. '

  'Oh, I agree,' said Colin heartily.

  Remembering Colin's absolute refusal to rescind Krystal's detention after the squawking incident in assembly, Tessa raised her eyebrows. Then she wondered, with a sick lurch in her stomach, what Colin would say if Sukhvinder was not lying or mistaken. But surely Sukhvinder was wrong. She was a shy, naive girl. Probably she had got the wrong end of the stick . . . misheard something . . .

  'The point is, about the only thing that motivates Terri is the fear of losing her kids,' said Kay. 'She's back on track at the moment; her key worker at the clinic told me she senses a bit of a breakthrough in Terri's attitude. If Bellchapel closes, it all goes belly-up again, and God knows what'll happen to the family. '

  'This is all very useful,' said Colin, nodding importantly, and starting to make notes on a clean page in his notebook. 'Very useful indeed. Did you say you've got statistics on people going clean?'

  Kay shuffled the printed pages, looking for the information. Tessa had the impression that Colin wanted to reclaim Kay's attention for himself. He had always been susceptible to good looks and a sympathetic manner.

  Tessa munched another biscuit, still thinking about Krystal. Their recent guidance sessions had not been very satisfactory. Krystal had been standoffish. Today's had been no different. She had extracted a promise from Krystal that she would not pursue or harass Sukhvinder Jawanda again, but Krystal's demeanour suggested that Tessa had let her down, that trust was broken. Possibly Colin's detention was to blame. Tessa had thought that she and Krystal had forged a bond strong enough to withstand that, although it had never been quite like the one Krystal had with Barry.

  (Tessa had been there, on the spot, the day that Barry had come into school with a rowing machine, looking for recruits to the crew he was trying to start. She had been summoned from the staff room to the gym, because the PE teacher was off sick, and the only supply teacher they could find at such short notice was male.

  The fourth-year girls, in their shorts and Aertex tops, had been giggly when they had arrived in the gym to find Miss Jarvis absent, replaced by two strange men. Tessa had had to reprimand Krystal, Nikki and Leanne, who had pushed to the front of the class and were making lewd suggestive remarks about the supply teacher; he was a handsome young man with an unfortunate tendency to blush.

  Barry, short, ginger-haired and bearded, was wearing a tracksuit. He had taken a morning off work to do this. Everybody thought his idea was strange and unrealistic: schools like Winterdown did not have rowing eights. Niamh and Siobhan had seemed half amused, half mortified by their dad's presence.

  Barry explained what he was trying to do: put together crews. He had secured the use of the old boathouse down on the canal at Yarvil; it was a fabulous sport, and an opportunity to shine, for themselves, for their school. Tessa had positioned herself right next to Krystal and her friends to keep them in check; the worst of their giggling had subsided, but was not entirely quelled.

  Barry demonstrated the rowing machine and asked for volunteers. Nobody stepped forward.

  'Krystal Weedon,' said Barry, pointing at her. 'I've seen you dangling off the monkey bars down the park; that's proper upper body strength you've got there. Come here and give it a go. '

  Krystal was only too happy to step into the spotlight; she swaggered up to the machine and sat down on it. Even with Tessa glowering beside them, Nikki and Leanne had howled with laughter and the rest of the class joined in.

  Barry showed Krystal what to do. The silent supply teacher had watched in professional alarm as Barry positioned her hands on the wooden handle.

  She heaved on the handle, making a stupid face at Nikki and Leanne, and everyone laughed again.

  'Look at that,' Barry had said, beaming. 'She's a natural. '

  Had Krystal really been a natural? Tessa did not know anything about rowing; she could not tell.

  'Straighten your back,' Barry told Krystal, 'or you'll injure it. That's it. Pull . . . pull . . . look at that technique . . . have you done this before?'

  Then Krystal really had straightened her back, and she really had done it properly. She stopped looking at Nikki and Leanne. She hit a rhythm.

  'Excellent,' said Barry. 'Look at that . . . excellent. That's how you do it! Atta girl. And again. And again. And - '

  'It 'urts!' shouted Krystal.

  'I know it does. That's how you end up with arms like Jennifer Aniston, doing that,' said Barry.

  There had been a little ripple of laughter, but this time they laughed with him. What was it that Barry had had? He was always so present, so natural, so entirely without self-consciousness. Teenagers, Tessa knew, were riven with the fear of ridicule. Those who were without it, and God knew there were few enough of them in the adult world, had natural authority among the young; they ought to be forced to teach.

  'And rest!' Barry said, and Krystal slumped, red in the face and rubbing her arms.

  'You'll have to give up the fags, Krystal,' said Barry, and he got a big laugh this time. 'OK, who else wants a try?'

  When Krystal rejoined her watching classmates, she was no longer laughing. She watched each new rower jealously, her eyes darting constantly to Barry's bearded face to see what he thought of them. When Carmen Lewis messed it up completely, Barry said, 'Show 'em, Krystal,' and her face lit up as she returned to the machine.

  But at the end of the exhibition, when Barry asked those who were interested in trying out for the team to raise their hands, Krystal kept her arms folded. Tessa watched her shake her head, sneering, as Nikki muttered to her. Barry carefully noted down the names of the interested girls, then looked up.

  'And you, Krystal Weedon,' he said, pointing at her. 'You're coming too. Don't you shake your head at me. I'll be very annoyed if I don't see you. That's natural talent you've got there. I don't like seeing natural talent wasted. Krys - tal,' he said loudly, inscribing her name, 'Wee - don. '

  Had Krystal thought about her natural talent as she showered at the end of the lesson? Had she carried the thought of her new aptitude around with her that day, like an unexpected Valentine? Tessa did not know; but to the amazement of all, except perhaps Barry, Krystal had turned up at try-outs. )

  Colin was nodding vigorously as Kay took him through relapse rates at Bellchapel.

  'Parminder should see this,' he said. 'I'll make sure she gets a copy. Yes, yes, very useful indeed. '

/>   Feeling slightly sick, Tessa took a fourth biscuit.