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The Casual Vacancy, Page 28

J. K. Rowling

Part Three Chapter XI



  Krystal did not take Robbie to nursery on Tuesday morning, but dressed him for Nana Cath's funeral instead. As she pulled up his least ripped trousers, which were a good two inches too short in the leg, she tried to explain to him who Nana Cath had been, but she might as well have saved her breath. Robbie had no memory of Nana Cath; he had no idea what Nana meant; no concept of any relative other than mother and sister. In spite of her shifting hints and stories, Krystal knew that Terri had no idea who his father was.

  Krystal heard her mother's footsteps on the stairs.

  'Leave it,' she snapped at Robbie, who had reached for an empty beer can lying beneath Terri's usual armchair. 'C'm'ere. '

  She pulled Robbie by the hand into the hall. Terri was still wearing the pyjama bottoms and dirty T-shirt in which she had spent the night, and her feet were bare.

  'Why intcha changed?' demanded Krystal.

  'I ain't goin',' said Terri, pushing past her son and daughter into the kitchen. 'Changed me mind. '


  'I don' wanna,' said Terri. She was lighting a cigarette off the ring of the cooker. 'Don' fuckin' 'ave to. '

  Krystal was still holding Robbie's hand, as he tugged and swung.

  'They're all goin',' said Krystal. 'Cheryl an' Shane an' all. '

  'So?' said Terri aggressively.

  Krystal had been afraid that her mother would pull out at the last minute. The funeral would bring her face to face with Danielle, the sister who pretended that Terri did not exist, not to mention all the other relatives who had disowned them. Anne-Marie might be there. Krystal had been holding on to that hope, like a torch in the darkness, through the nights she had sobbed for Nana Cath and Mr Fairbrother.

  'You gotta go,' said Krystal.

  'No, I ain'. '

  'It's Nana Cath, innit,' said Krystal.

  'So?' said Terri, again.

  'She done loads fer us,' said Krystal.

  'No, she ain',' snapped Terri.

  'She did,' said Krystal, her face hot and her hand clutching Robbie's.

  'Fer you, maybe,' said Terri. 'She done fuck-all for me. Go an' fuckin' bawl all over 'er fuckin' grave if yeh want. I'm waitin' in. '

  'Wha' for?' said Krystal.

  'My bus'ness, innit. '

  The old familiar shadow fell.

  'Obbo's comin' round, is 'e?'

  'My bus'ness,' repeated Terri, with pathetic dignity.

  'Come to the funeral,' said Krystal loudly.

  'You go. '

  'Don' go fuckin' usin',' said Krystal, her voice an octave higher.

  'I ain',' said Terri, but she turned away, looking out of the dirty back window over the patch of overgrown litter-strewn grass they called the back garden.

  Robbie tugged his hand out of Krystal's and disappeared into the sitting room. With her fists deep in her trackie pockets, shoulders squared, Krystal tried to decide what to do. She wanted to cry at the thought of not going to the funeral, but her distress was edged with relief that she would not have to face the battery of hostile eyes she had sometimes met at Nana Cath's. She was angry with Terri, and yet felt strangely on her side. You don't even know who the father is, do yeh, yer whore? She wanted to meet Anne-Marie, but was scared.

  'All righ', then, I'll stay an' all. '

  'You don' 'ave ter. Go, if yeh wan'. I don' fuckin' care. '

  But Krystal, certain that Obbo would appear, stayed. Obbo had been away for more than a week, for some nefarious purpose of his own. Krystal wished that he had died, that he would never come back.

  For something to do, she began to tidy the house, while smoking one of the roll-ups Fats Wall had given her. She didn't like them, but she liked that he had given them to her. She had been keeping them in Nikki's plastic jewellery box, along with Tessa's watch.

  She had thought that she might not see Fats any more, after their shag in the cemetery, because he had been almost silent afterwards and left her with barely a goodbye, but they had since met up on the rec. She could tell that he had enjoyed this time more than the last; they had not been stoned, and he had lasted longer. He lay beside her in the grass beneath the bushes, smoking, and when she had told him about Nana Cath dying, he had told her that Sukhvinder Jawanda's mother had given Nana Cath the wrong drugs or something; he was not clear exactly what had happened.

  Krystal had been horrified. So Nana Cath need not have died; she might still have been in the neat little house on Hope Street, there in case Krystal needed her, offering a refuge with a comfortable clean-sheeted bed, the tiny kitchen full of food and mismatched china, and the little TV in the corner of the sitting room: I don' wanna watch no filth, Krystal, turn that off.

  Krystal had liked Sukhvinder, but Sukhvinder's mother had killed Nana Cath. You did not differentiate between members of an enemy tribe. It had been Krystal's avowed intention to pulverize Sukhvinder; but then Tessa Wall had intervened. Krystal could not remember the details of what Tessa had told her; but it seemed that Fats had got the story wrong or, at least, not exactly right. She had given Tessa a grudging promise not to go after Sukhvinder, but such promises could only ever be stop-gaps in Krystal's frantic ever-changing world.

  'Put it down!' Krystal shouted at Robbie, because he was trying to prise the lid off the biscuit tin where Terri kept her works.

  Krystal snatched the tin from him and held it in her hands like a living creature, something that would fight to stay alive, whose destruction would have tremendous consequences. There was a scratched picture on the lid: a carriage with luggage piled high on the roof, drawn through the snow by four chestnut horses, a coachman in a top hat carrying a bugle. She carried the tin upstairs with her, while Terri sat in the kitchen smoking, and hid it in her bedroom. Robbie trailed after her.

  'Wanna go play park. '

  She sometimes took him and pushed him on the swings and the roundabout.

  'Not today, Robbie. '

  He whined until she shouted at him to shut up.

  Later, when it was dark - after Krystal had made Robbie his tea of spaghetti hoops and given him a bath; when the funeral was long since over - Obbo rapped on the front door. Krystal saw him from Robbie's bedroom window and tried to get there first, but Terri beat her to it.

  'All righ', Ter?' he said, over the threshold before anyone had invited him in. ''Eard you was lookin' fer me las' week. '

  Although she had told him to stay put, Robbie had followed Krystal downstairs. She could smell his shampooed hair over the smell of fags and stale sweat that clung to Obbo in his ancient leather jacket. Obbo had had a few; when he leered at her, she smelt the beer fumes.

  'All righ', Obbo?' said Terri, with the note in her voice Krystal never heard otherwise. It was conciliating, accommodating; it conceded that he had rights in their house. 'Where you bin, then?'

  'Bristol,' he said. 'How's you, Ter?'

  'She don' wan' nuthin',' said Krystal.

  He blinked at her through his thick glasses. Robbie was clutching Krystal's leg so tightly that she could feel his nails in her skin.

  'Oo's this, Ter?' asked Obbo. 'Yer mum?'

  Terri laughed. Krystal glared at him, Robbie's grip tight on her thigh. Obbo's bleary gaze dropped to him.

  'An' 'ow's me boy?'

  'He ain' your fuckin' boy,' said Krystal.

  ''Ow d'you know?' Obbo asked her quietly, grinning.

  'Fuck off. She don' wan' nuthin'. Tell 'im,' Krystal virtually shouted at Terri. 'Tell 'im you don' wan' nuthin'. '

  Daunted, caught between two wills much stronger than her own, Terri said, ''E on'y come rounda see - '

  'No, 'e ain't,' said Krystal. 'No, 'e fuckin' ain't. Tell 'im. She don' wan' nuthin',' she said fiercely into Obbo's grinning face. 'She's bin off it fer weeks. '

  'Is tha' right, Terri?' said Obbo, still smiling.

  'Yeah, it is,' said Krysta
l, when Terri did not answer. 'She's still at Bellchapel. '

  'Noffur much longer,' said Obbo.

  'Fuck off,' said Krystal, outraged.

  'Closin' it,' said Obbo.

  'Are they?' said Terri in sudden panic. 'They ain't, are they?'

  'Course they are,' said Obbo. 'Cuts, innit?'

  'You don't know nuthin',' Krystal told Obbo. 'It's bollocks,' she told her mother. 'They 'aven' said nuthin', 'ave they?'

  'Cuts,' repeated Obbo, patting his bulging pockets for cigarettes.

  'We got the case review,' Krystal reminded Terri. 'Yeh can't use. Yeh can't. '

  'Wha's that?' asked Obbo, fiddling with his lighter, but neither woman enlightened him. Terri met her daughter's gaze for a bare two seconds; her eyes fell, reluctantly, to Robbie in his pyjamas, still clinging tightly to Krystal's leg.

  'Yeah, I wuz gonna go ter bed, Obbo,' she mumbled, without looking at him. 'I'll mebbe see yer another time. '

  'I 'eard your Nan died,' he said. 'Cheryl wuz tellin' me. '

  Pain contorted Terri's face; she looked as old as Nana Cath herself.

  'Yeah, I'm goin' ter bed. C'mon, Robbie. Come wi' me, Robbie. '

  Robbie did not want to let go of Krystal while Obbo was still there. Terri held out her claw-like hand.

  'Yeah, go on, Robbie,' Krystal urged him. In certain moods, Terri clutched her son like a teddy bear; better Robbie than smack. 'Go on. Go wi' Mum. '

  He was reassured by something in Krystal's voice, and allowed Terri to take him upstairs.

  'See yeh,' said Krystal, without looking at Obbo, but stalking away from him into the kitchen, pulling the last of Fats Wall's roll-ups out of her pocket and bending to light it off the gas ring. She heard the front door close and felt triumphant. Fuck him.

  'You got a lovely arse, Krystal. '

  She jumped so violently that a plate slipped off the heaped side and smashed on the filthy floor. He had not gone, but had followed her. He was staring at her chest in its tight T-shirt.

  'Fuck off,' she said.

  'Big girl, intcha?'

  'Fuck off. '

  'I 'eard you give it away free,' said Obbo, closing in. 'You could make better money'n yer mum. '

  'Fuck - '

  His hand was on her left breast. She tried to knock it away; he seized her wrist in his other hand. Her lit cigarette grazed his face and he punched her, twice, to the side of the head; more plates shattered on the filthy floor and then, as they wrestled, she slipped and fell; the back of her head smacked on the floor, and he was on top of her: she could feel his hand at the waistband of her tracksuit bottoms, pulling.

  'No - fuck - no!'

  His knuckles in her belly as he undid his own flies - she tried to scream and he smacked her across the face - the smell of him was thick in her nostrils as he growled in her ear, 'Fuckin' shout and I'll cut yer. '

  He was inside her and it hurt; she could hear him grunting and her own tiny whimper; she was ashamed of the noise she made, so frightened and so small.

  He came and clambered off her. At once she pulled up her tracksuit bottoms and jumped up to face him, tears pouring down her face as he leered at her.

  'I'll tell Mist' Fairbrother,' she heard herself sob. She did not know where it came from. It was a stupid thing to say.

  'The fuck's he?' Obbo tugged up his flies, lit a cigarette, taking his time, blocking her exit. 'You fuckin' 'im too, are yeh? Little slapper. '

  He sauntered up the hall and was gone.

  She was shaking as she had never done in her life. She thought she might be sick; she could smell him all over her. The back of her head throbbed; there was a pain inside her, and wetness seeping into her pants. She ran out of the room into the living room and stood, shivering, with her arms wrapped around herself; then she knew a moment of terror, that he would come back, and hurried to the front door to lock it.

  Back in the sitting room she found a long stub in the ashtray and lit it. Smoking, shaking and sobbing, she sank into Terri's usual chair, then jumped up because she heard footsteps on the stairs: Terri had reappeared, looking confused and wary.

  'Wha'ssa matter with you?'

  Krystal gagged on the words.

  'He jus' - he jus' fucked me. '

  'Wha'?' said Terri.

  'Obbo - 'e jus' - '

  ''E wouldn'. '

  It was the instinctive denial with which Terri met all of life: he wouldn't, no, I never, no, I didn't.

  Krystal flew at her and pushed her; emaciated as she was, Terri crumpled backwards into the hall, shrieking and swearing; Krystal ran to the door she had just locked, fumbled to unfasten it and wrenched it open.

  Still sobbing, she was twenty yards along the dark street before she realized that Obbo might be waiting out here, watching. She cut across a neighbour's garden at a run and took a zig-zag route through back ways in the direction of Nikki's house, and all the time the wetness spread in her pants and she thought she might throw up.

  Krystal knew that it was rape, what he had done. It had happened to Leanne's older sister in the car park of a nightclub in Bristol. Some people would have gone to the police, she knew that; but you did not invite the police into your life when your mother was Terri Weedon.

  I'll tell Mist' Fairbrother.

  Her sobs came faster and faster. She could have told Mr Fairbrother. He had known what real life was like. One of his brothers had done time. He had told Krystal stories of his youth. It had not been like her youth - nobody was as low as her, she knew that - but like Nikki's, like Leanne's. Money had run out; his mother had bought her council house and then been unable to keep up the payments; they had lived for a while in a caravan lent by an uncle.

  Mr Fairbrother took care of things; he sorted things out. He had come to their house and talked to Terri about Krystal and rowing, because there had been an argument and Terri was refusing to sign forms for Krystal to go away with the team. He had not been disgusted, or he had not shown it, which came to the same thing. Terri, who liked and trusted nobody, had said, ''E seems all righ',' and she had signed.

  Mr Fairbrother had once said to her, 'It'll be tougher for you than these others, Krys; it was tougher for me. But you can do better. You don't have to go the same way. '

  He had meant working hard at school and stuff, but it was too late for that and, anyway, it was all bollocks. How would reading help her now?

  'Ow's me boy?

  He ain' your fuckin' boy.

  'Ow d'you know?

  Leanne's sister had had to get the morning-after pill. Krystal would ask Leanne about the pill and go and get it. She could not have Obbo's baby. The thought of it made her retch.

  I gotta get out of here.

  She thought fleetingly of Kay, and then discarded her: as bad as the police, to tell a social worker that Obbo walked in and out of their house, raping people. She would take Robbie for sure, if she knew that.

  A clear lucid voice in Krystal's head was speaking to Mr Fairbrother, who was the only adult who had ever talked to her the way she needed, unlike Mrs Wall, so well-intentioned and so blinkered, and Nana Cath, refusing to hear the whole truth.

  I gotta get Robbie out of here. How can I get away? I gotta get away.

  Her one sure refuge, the little house in Hope Street, was already being gobbled up by squabbling relatives . . .

  She scurried around a corner underneath a street lamp, looking over her shoulder in case he was watching her, following.

  And then the answer came to her, as though Mr Fairbrother had shown her the way.

  If she got knocked up by Fats Wall, she would be able to get her own place from the council. She would be able to take Robbie to live with her and the baby if Terri used again. And Obbo would never enter her house, not ever. There would be bolts and chains and locks on the door, and her house would be clean, always clean, like Nana Cath's house.

  Half running
along the dark street, Krystal's sobs slowed and subsided.

  The Walls would probably give her money. They were like that. She could imagine Tessa's plain, concerned face, bending over a cot. Krystal would have their grandchild.

  She would lose Fats in getting pregnant; they always went, once you were expecting; she had watched it happen nearly every time in the Fields. But perhaps he would be interested; he was so strange. It did not much matter to her either way. Her interest in him, except as the essential component in her plan, had dwindled to almost nothing. What she wanted was the baby: the baby was more than a means to an end. She liked babies; she had always loved Robbie. She would keep the two of them safe, together; she would be like a better, kinder, younger Nana Cath to her family.

  Anne-Marie might come and visit, once she was away from Terri. Their children would be cousins. A very vivid image of herself and Anne-Marie came to Krystal; they were standing at the school gates of St Thomas's in Pagford, waving off two little girls in pale blue dresses and ankle socks.

  The lights were on in Nikki's house, as they always were. Krystal broke into a run.