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The Casual Vacancy, Page 29

J. K. Rowling

Part Four Chapter I



  5. 11 At common law, idiots are subject to a permanent legal incapacity to vote, but persons of unsound mind may vote during lucid intervals.

  Charles Arnold-Baker

  Local Council Administration,

  Seventh Edition


  Samantha Mollison had now bought herself all three of the DVDs released by Libby's favourite boy band. She kept them hidden in her socks and tights drawer, beside her diaphragm. She had her story ready, if Miles spotted them: they were a gift for Libby. Sometimes at work, where business was slower than ever, she searched the internet for pictures of Jake. It was during one of these trawling sessions - Jake in a suit but with no shirt, Jake in jeans and a white vest - that she discovered that the band was playing at Wembley in a fortnight's time.

  She had a friend from university who lived in West Ealing. She could stay over, sell it to Libby as a treat, a chance to spend time together. With more genuine excitement than she had felt in a long time, Samantha managed to buy two very expensive tickets for the concert. When she let herself into the house that evening, she glowed with a delicious secret, almost as though she were coming home from a date.

  Miles was already in the kitchen, still in his work suit, with the phone in his hand. He stared at her as she entered, and his expression was strange, difficult to read.

  'What?' said Samantha, a little defensively.

  'I can't get hold of Dad,' said Miles. 'His bloody phone's engaged. There's been another post. '

  And when Samantha looked nonplussed, he said with a trace of impatience, 'Barry Fairbrother's Ghost! Another message! On the council website!'

  'Oh,' said Samantha, unwinding her scarf. 'Right. '

  'Yeah, I met Betty Rossiter just now, coming up the street; she was full of it. I've checked the message board, but I can't see it. Mum must've taken it down already - well, I bloody hope she has, she'll be in the firing line if Bends-Your-Ear goes to a lawyer. '

  'About Parminder Jawanda, was it?' asked Samantha, her tone deliberately casual. She did not ask what the accusation had been, first, because she was determined not to be a nosy, gossiping old bag like Shirley and Maureen, and secondly, because she thought she already knew: that Parminder had caused the death of old Cath Weedon. After a moment or two, she asked, sounding vaguely amused, 'Did you say your mother might be in the firing line?'

  'Well, she's the site administrator, so she's liable if she doesn't get rid of defamatory or potentially defamatory statements. I'm not sure she and Dad understand how serious this could be. '

  'You could defend your mother, she'd like that. '

  But Miles had not heard; he was pressing redial and scowling, because his father's mobile was still engaged.

  'This is getting serious,' he said.

  'You were all quite happy when it was Simon Price who was getting attacked. Why's this any different?'

  'If it's a campaign against anyone on the council, or standing for council . . . '

  Samantha turned away to hide her grin. His concern was not about Shirley after all.

  'But why would anyone write stuff about you?' she asked innocently. 'You haven't got any guilty secrets. '

  You might be more bloody interesting if you had.

  'What about that letter?'

  'What letter?'

  'For God's - Mum and Dad said there was a letter, an anonymous letter about me! Saying I wasn't fit to fill Barry Fairbrother's shoes!'

  Samantha opened the freezer and stared at the unappetizing contents, aware that Miles could no longer see her expression with the door open.

  'You don't think anyone's got anything on you, do you?' she asked.

  'No - but I'm a lawyer, aren't I? There might be people with a grudge. I don't think this kind of anonymous stuff . . . I mean, so far it's all about the other side, but there could be reprisals . . . I don't like the way this thing's going. '

  'Well, that's politics, Miles,' said Samantha, openly amused. 'Dirty business. '

  Miles stalked out of the room, but she did not care; her thoughts had already returned to chiselled cheekbones, winged eyebrows and taut, tight abdominal muscles. She could sing along with most of the songs now. She would buy a band T-shirt to wear - and one for Libby too. Jake would be undulating mere yards away from her. It would be more fun than she had had in years.

  Howard, meanwhile, was pacing up and down the closed delicatessen with his mobile phone clamped to his ear. The blinds were down, the lights were on, and through the archway in the wall Shirley and Maureen were busy in the soon-to-be-opened cafe, unpacking china and glasses, talking in excited undertones and half listening to Howard's almost monosyllabic contributions to his conversation.

  'Yes . . . mm, hmm . . . yes . . . '

  'Screaming at me,' said Shirley. 'Screaming and swearing. "Take it bloody down," she said. I said, "I'm taking it down, Dr Jawanda, and I'll thank you not to swear at me. "'

  'I'd've left it up there for another couple of hours if she'd sworn at me,' said Maureen.

  Shirley smiled. As it happened, she had chosen to go and make herself a cup of tea, leaving the anonymous post about Parminder up on the site for an extra forty-five minutes before removing it. She and Maureen had already picked over the topic of the post until it was ragged and bare; there was plenty of scope for further dissection, but the immediate urge was sated. Instead, Shirley looked ahead, greedily, to Parminder's reaction to having her secret spilt in public.

  'It can't have been her who did that post about Simon Price, after all,' said Maureen.

  'No, obviously not,' said Shirley, as she wiped over the pretty blue and white china that she had chosen, overruling Maureen's preference for pink. Sometimes, though not directly involved in the business, Shirley liked to remind Maureen that she still had huge influence, as Howard's wife.

  'Yes,' said Howard, on the telephone. 'But wouldn't it be better to . . . ? Mm, hmm . . . '

  'So who do you think it is?' asked Maureen.

  'I really don't know,' said Shirley, in a genteel voice, as though such knowledge or suspicions were beneath her.

  'Someone who knows the Prices and the Jawandas,' said Maureen.

  'Obviously,' said Shirley again.

  Howard hung up at last.

  'Aubrey agrees,' he told the two women, waddling through into the cafe. He was clutching today's edition of the Yarvil and District Gazette. 'Very weak piece. Very weak indeed. '

  It took the two women several seconds to recollect that they were supposed to be interested in the posthumous article by Barry Fairbrother in the local newspaper. His ghost was so much more interesting.

  'Oh, yes; well, I thought it was very poor when I read it,' said Shirley, hurriedly catching up.

  'The interview with Krystal Weedon was funny,' guffawed Maureen. 'Making out she enjoyed art. I suppose that's what she calls graffiti-ing the desks. '

  Howard laughed. As an excuse to turn her back, Shirley picked up Andrew Price's spare EpiPen from the counter, which Ruth had dropped into the delicatessen that morning. Shirley had looked up EpiPens on her favourite medical website, and felt fully competent to explain how adrenalin worked. Nobody asked, though, so she put the small white tube away in the cupboard and closed the door as noisily as she could to try and disrupt Maureen's further witticisms.

  The phone in Howard's huge hand rang.

  'Yes, hello? Oh, Miles, yes . . . yes, we know all about it . . . Mum saw it this morning . . . ' He laughed. 'Yes, she's taken it down . . . I don't know . . . I think it was posted yesterday . . . Oh, I wouldn't say that . . . we've all known about Bends-Your-Ear for years . . . '

  But Howard's jocularity faded as Miles talked. After a while he said, 'Ah . . . yes, I see. Yes. No, I hadn't considered it from . . . perhaps we should get someone to have a look at security . . . '

  The sound of a car in the darken
ing square outside went virtually unremarked by the three in the delicatessen, but its driver noticed the enormous shadow of Howard Mollison moving behind the cream blinds. Gavin put his foot down, eager to get to Mary. She had sounded desperate on the telephone.

  'Who's doing this? Who's doing it? Who hates me this much?'

  'Nobody hates you,' he had said. 'Who could hate you? Stay there . . . I'm coming over. '

  He parked outside the house, slammed the door and hurried up the footpath. She opened the front door before he had even knocked. Her eyes were puffy with tears again, and she was wearing a floor-length woollen dressing gown that dwarfed her. It was not at all seductive; the very antithesis of Kay's scarlet kimono, but its homeliness, its very shabbiness, represented a new level of intimacy.

  Mary's four children were all in the sitting room. Mary gestured him through into the kitchen.

  'Do they know?' he asked her.

  'Fergus does. Somebody at school told him. I've asked him not to tell the others. Honestly, Gavin . . . I'm about at the end of my tether. The spite - '

  'It isn't true,' he said, and then, his curiosity getting the better of him, 'is it?'

  'No!' she said, outraged. 'I mean . . . I don't know . . . I don't really know her. But to make him talk like that . . . putting the words in his mouth . . . don't they care what it's like for me?'

  She dissolved into tears again. He felt that he shouldn't hug her while she was wearing her dressing gown, and was glad that he had not, when eighteen-year-old Fergus entered the kitchen a moment later.

  'Hey, Gav. '

  The boy looked tired, older than his years. Gavin watched him put an arm around Mary and saw her lean her head against his shoulder, mopping her eyes on her baggy sleeve like a child.

  'I don't think it was the same person,' Fergus told them, without preamble. 'I've been looking at it again. The style of the message is different. '

  He had it on his mobile phone, and began to read aloud:

  '"Parish Councillor Dr Parminder Jawanda, who pretends to be so keen on looking after the poor and needy of the area, has always had a secret motive. Until I died - "'

  'Fergus, don't,' said Mary, slumping down at the kitchen table. 'I can't take it. I honestly can't. And his article in the paper today too. '

  As she covered her face with her hands and sobbed silently, Gavin noticed the Yarvil and District Gazette lying there. He never read it. Without asking or offering, he moved across to the cupboard to make her a drink.

  'Thanks, Gav,' she said thickly, when he pushed the glass into her hand.

  'It might be Howard Mollison,' suggested Gavin, sitting down beside her. 'From what Barry said about him. '

  'I don't think so,' said Mary, dabbing at her eyes. 'It's so crude. He never did anything like that when Barry was -' she hiccuped '- alive. ' And then she snapped at her son, 'Throw that paper away, Fergus. '

  The boy looked confused and hurt.

  'It's got Dad's - '

  'Throw it away!' said Mary, with an edge of hysteria in her voice. 'I can read it off the computer if I want to, the last thing he ever did - on our anniversary!'

  Fergus took the newspaper off the table and stood for a moment watching his mother, who had buried her face in her hands again. Then, with a glance at Gavin, he walked out of the room still holding the Gazette.

  After a while, when Gavin judged that Fergus was not coming back, he put out a consoling hand and rubbed Mary's arm. They sat in silence for some time, and Gavin felt much happier with the newspaper gone from the table.