Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Casual Vacancy, Page 3

J. K. Rowling

Part One (Olden Days)



  12. 43 As against trespassers (who, in principle, must take other people's premises and their occupiers as they find them) . . .

  Charles Arnold-Baker

  Local Council Administration,

  Seventh Edition


  Pagford Parish Council was, for its size, an impressive force. It met once a month in a pretty Victorian church hall, and attempts to cut its budget, annex any of its powers or absorb it into some newfangled unitary authority had been strenuously and successfully resisted for decades. Of all the local councils under the higher authority of Yarvil District Council, Pagford prided itself on being the most obstreperous, the most vocal and the most independent.

  Until Sunday evening, it had comprised sixteen local men and women. As the town's electorate tended to assume that a wish to serve on the Parish Council implied competence to do so, all sixteen councillors had gained their seats unopposed.

  Yet this amicably appointed body was currently in a state of civil war. An issue that had been causing fury and resentment in Pagford for sixty-odd years had reached a definitive phase, and factions had rallied behind two charismatic leaders.

  To grasp fully the cause of the dispute it was necessary to comprehend the precise depth of Pagford's dislike and mistrust of the city of Yarvil, which lay to its north.

  Yarvil's shops, businesses, factories, and the South West General Hospital, provided the bulk of the employment in Pagford. The small town's youths generally spent their Saturday nights in Yarvil's cinemas and nightclubs. The city had a cathedral, several parks and two enormous shopping centres, and these things were pleasant enough to visit if you had sated yourself on Pagford's superior charms. Even so, to true Pagfordians, Yarvil was little more than a necessary evil. Their attitude was symbolized by the high hill, topped by Pargetter Abbey, which blocked Yarvil from Pagford's sight, and allowed the townspeople the happy illusion that the city was many miles further away than it truly was.


  It so happened that Pargetter Hill also obscured from the town's view another place, but one that Pagford had always considered particularly its own. This was Sweetlove House, an exquisite, honey-coloured Queen Anne manor, set in many acres of park and farmland. It lay within Pagford Parish, halfway between the town and Yarvil.

  For nearly two hundred years the house had passed smoothly from generation to generation of aristocratic Sweetloves, until finally, in the early 1900s, the family had died out. All that remained these days of the Sweetloves' long association with Pagford, was the grandest tomb in the churchyard of St Michael and All Saints, and a smattering of crests and initials over local records and buildings, like the footprints and coprolites of extinct creatures.

  After the death of the last of the Sweetloves, the manor house had changed hands with alarming rapidity. There were constant fears in Pagford that some developer would buy and mutilate the beloved landmark. Then, in the 1950s, a man called Aubrey Fawley purchased the place. Fawley was soon known to be possessed of substantial private wealth, which he supplemented in mysterious ways in the City. He had four children, and a desire to settle permanently. Pagford's approval was raised to still giddier heights by the swiftly circulated intelligence that Fawley was descended, through a collateral line, from the Sweetloves. He was clearly half a local already, a man whose natural allegiance would be to Pagford and not to Yarvil. Old Pagford believed that the advent of Aubrey Fawley meant the return of a charmed era. He would be a fairy godfather to the town, like his ancestors before him, showering grace and glamour over their cobbled streets.

  Howard Mollison could still remember his mother bursting into their tiny kitchen in Hope Street with the news that Aubrey had been invited to judge the local flower show. Her runner beans had taken the vegetable prize three years in a row, and she yearned to accept the silver-plated rose bowl from a man who was already, to her, a figure of old-world romance.


  But then, so local legend told, came the sudden darkness that attends the appearance of the wicked fairy.

  Even as Pagford was rejoicing that Sweetlove House had fallen into such safe hands, Yarvil was busily constructing a swath of council houses to its south. The new streets, Pagford learned with unease, were consuming some of the land that lay between the city and the town.

  Everybody knew that there had been an increasing demand for cheap housing since the war, but the little town, momentarily distracted by Aubrey Fawley's arrival, began to buzz with mistrust of Yarvil's intentions. The natural barriers of river and hill that had once been guarantors of Pagford's sovereignty seemed diminished by the speed with which the red-brick houses multiplied. Yarvil filled every inch of the land at its disposal, and stopped at the northern border of Pagford Parish.

  The town sighed with a relief that was soon revealed to be premature. The Cantermill Estate was immediately judged insufficient to meet the population's needs, and the city cast about for more land to colonize.

  It was then that Aubrey Fawley (still more myth than man to the people of Pagford) made the decision that triggered a festering sixty-year grudge.

  Having no use for the few scrubby fields that lay beyond the new development, he sold the land to Yarvil Council for a good price, and used the cash to restore the warped panelling in the hall of Sweetlove House.

  Pagford's fury was unconfined. The Sweetlove fields had been an important part of its buttress against the encroaching city; now the ancient border of the parish was to be compromised by an overspill of needy Yarvilians. Rowdy town hall meetings, seething letters to the newspaper and Yarvil Council, personal remonstrance with those in charge - nothing succeeded in reversing the tide.

  The council houses began to advance again, but with one difference. In the brief hiatus following completion of the first estate, the council had realized that it could build more cheaply. The fresh eruption was not of red brick but of concrete in steel frames. This second estate was known locally as the Fields, after the land on which it had been built, and was marked as distinct from the Cantermill Estate by its inferior materials and design.

  It was in one of the Fields' concrete and steel houses, already cracking and warping by the late 1960s, that Barry Fairbrother was born.


  In spite of Yarvil Council's bland assurances that maintenance of the new estate would be its own responsibility, Pagford - as the furious townsfolk had predicted from the first - was soon landed with new bills. While the provision of most services to the Fields, and the upkeep of its houses, fell to Yarvil Council, there remained matters that the city, in its lofty way, delegated to the parish: the maintenance of public footpaths, of lighting and public seating, of bus shelters and common land.

  Graffiti blossomed on the bridges spanning the Pagford to Yarvil road; Fields bus shelters were vandalized; Fields teenagers strewed the play park with beer bottles and threw rocks at the street lamps. A local footpath, much favoured by tourists and ramblers, became a popular spot for Fields youths to congregate, 'and worse', as Howard Mollison's mother put it darkly. It fell to Pagford Parish Council to clean, to repair and to replace, and the funds dispersed by Yarvil were felt from the first to be inadequate for the time and expense required.

  No part of Pagford's unwanted burden caused more fury or bitterness than the fact that Fields children now fell inside the catchment area of St Thomas's Church of England Primary School. Young Fielders had the right to don the coveted blue and white uniform, to play in the yard beside the foundation stone laid by Lady Charlotte Sweetlove and to deafen the tiny classrooms with their strident Yarvil accents.

  It swiftly became common lore in Pagford that houses in the Fields had become the prize and goal of every benefit-supported Yarvil family with school-age children; that there was a great ongoing scramble across the boundary line from the Cantermill Estate, much as Mexicans streamed into Texas.
Their beautiful St Thomas's - a magnet for professional commuters to Yarvil, who were attracted by the tiny classes, the rolltop desks, the aged stone building and the lush green playing field - would be overrun and swamped by the offspring of scroungers, addicts and mothers whose children had all been fathered by different men.

  This nightmarish scenario had never been fully realized, because while there were undoubtedly advantages to St Thomas's there were also drawbacks: the need to buy the uniform, or else to fill in all the forms required to qualify for assistance for the same; the necessity of attaining bus passes, and of getting up earlier to ensure that the children arrived at school on time. Some households in the Fields found these onerous obstacles, and their children were absorbed instead by the large plain-clothes primary school that had been built to serve the Cantermill Estate. Most of the Fields pupils who came to St Thomas's blended in well with their peers in Pagford; some, indeed, were admitted to be perfectly nice children. Thus Barry Fairbrother had moved up through the school, a popular and clever class clown, only occasionally noticing that the smile of a Pagford parent stiffened when he mentioned the place where he lived.

  Nevertheless, St Thomas's was sometimes forced to take in a Fields pupil of undeniably disruptive nature. Krystal Weedon had been living with her great-grandmother in Hope Street when the time came for her to start school, so that there was really no way of stopping her coming, even though, when she moved back to the Fields with her mother at the age of eight, there were high hopes locally that she would leave St Thomas's for good.

  Krystal's slow passage up the school had resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned. Not that Krystal was always in class: for much of her career at St Thomas's she had been taught one-on-one by a special teacher.

  By a malign stroke of fate, Krystal had been in the same class as Howard and Shirley's eldest granddaughter, Lexie. Krystal had once hit Lexie Mollison so hard in the face that she had knocked out two of her teeth. That they had already been wobbly was not felt, by Lexie's parents and grandparents, to be much of an extenuation.

  It was the conviction that whole classes of Krystals would be waiting for their daughters at Winterdown Comprehensive that finally decided Miles and Samantha Mollison on removing both their daughters to St Anne's, the private girls' school in Yarvil, where they had become weekly boarders. The fact that his granddaughters had been driven out of their rightful places by Krystal Weedon, swiftly became one of Howard's favourite conversational examples of the estate's nefarious influence on Pagford life.


  The first effusion of Pagford's outrage had annealed into a quieter, but no less powerful, sense of grievance. The Fields polluted and corrupted a place of peace and beauty, and the smouldering townsfolk remained determined to cut the estate adrift. Yet boundary reviews had come and gone, and reforms in local government had swept the area without effecting any change: the Fields remained part of Pagford. Newcomers to the town learned quickly that abhorrence of the estate was a necessary passport to the goodwill of that hard core of Pagfordians who ran everything.

  But now, at long last - over sixty years after Old Aubrey Fawley had handed Yarvil that fatal parcel of land - after decades of patient work, of strategizing and petitioning, of collating information and haranguing sub-committees - the anti-Fielders of Pagford found themselves, at last, on the trembling threshold of victory.

  The recession was forcing local authorities to streamline, cut and reorganize. There were those on the higher body of Yarvil District Council who foresaw an advantage to their electoral fortunes if the crumbling little estate, likely to fare poorly under the austerity measures imposed by the national government, were to be scooped up, and its disgruntled inhabitants joined to their own voters.

  Pagford had its own representative in Yarvil: District Councillor Aubrey Fawley. This was not the man who had enabled the construction of the Fields, but his son, 'Young Aubrey', who had inherited Sweetlove House and who worked through the week as a merchant banker in London. There was a whiff of penance in Aubrey's involvement in local affairs, a sense that he ought to make right the wrong that his father had so carelessly done to the little town. He and his wife Julia donated and gave out prizes at the agricultural show, sat on any number of local committees, and threw an annual Christmas party to which invitations were much coveted.

  It was Howard's pride and delight to think that he and Aubrey were such close allies in the continuing quest to reassign the Fields to Yarvil, because Aubrey moved in a higher sphere of commerce that commanded Howard's fascinated respect. Every evening, after the delicatessen closed, Howard removed the tray of his old-fashioned till, and counted up coins and dirty notes before placing them in a safe. Aubrey, on the other hand, never touched money during his office hours, and yet he caused it to move in unimaginable quantities across continents. He managed it and multiplied it and, when the portents were less propitious, he watched magisterially as it vanished. To Howard, Aubrey had a mystique that not even a worldwide financial crash could dent; the delicatessen-owner was impatient of anyone who blamed the likes of Aubrey for the mess in which the country found itself. Nobody had complained when things were going well, was Howard's oft-repeated view, and he accorded Aubrey the respect due to a general injured in an unpopular war.

  Meanwhile, as a district councillor, Aubrey was privy to all kinds of interesting statistics, and in a position to share a good deal of information with Howard about Pagford's troublesome satellite. The two men knew exactly how much of the district's resources were poured, without return or apparent improvement, into the Fields' dilapidated streets; that nobody owned their own house in the Fields (whereas the red-brick houses of the Cantermill Estate were almost all in private hands these days; they had been prettified almost beyond recognition, with window-boxes and porches and neat front lawns); that nearly two-thirds of Fields-dwellers lived entirely off the state; and that a sizeable proportion passed through the doors of the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic.


  Howard carried the mental image of the Fields with him always, like a memory of a nightmare: boarded windows daubed with obscenities; smoking teenagers loitering in the perennially defaced bus shelters; satellite dishes everywhere, turned to the skies like the denuded ovules of grim metal flowers. He often asked rhetorically why they could not have organized and made the place over - what was stopping the residents from pooling their meagre resources and buying a lawnmower between the lot of them? But it never happened: the Fields waited for the councils, District and Parish, to clean, to repair, to maintain; to give and give and give again.

  Howard would then recall the Hope Street of his boyhood, with its tiny back gardens, each hardly more than tablecloth-sized squares of earth, but most, including his mother's, bristling with runner beans and potatoes. There was nothing, as far as Howard could see, to stop the Fielders growing fresh vegetables; nothing to stop them disciplining their sinister, hooded, spray-painting offspring; nothing to stop them pulling themselves together as a community and tackling the dirt and the shabbiness; nothing to stop them cleaning themselves up and taking jobs; nothing at all. So Howard was forced to draw the conclusion that they were choosing, of their own free will, to live the way they lived, and that the estate's air of slightly threatening degradation was nothing more than a physical manifestation of ignorance and indolence.

  Pagford, by contrast, shone with a kind of moral radiance in Howard's mind, as though the collective soul of the community was made manifest in its cobbled streets, its hills, its picturesque houses. To Howard, his birthplace was much more than a collection of old buildings, and a fast-flowing, tree-fringed river, the majestic silhouette of the abbey above or the hanging baskets in the Square. For him, the town was an ideal, a way of being; a micro-civilization that stood firmly against a national decline.

  'I'm a Pagford man,' he would te
ll summertime tourists, 'born and bred. ' In so saying, he was giving himself a profound compliment disguised as a commonplace. He had been born in Pagford and he would die there, and he had never dreamed of leaving, nor itched for more change of scene than could be had from watching the seasons transform the surrounding woods and river; from watching the Square blossom in spring or sparkle at Christmas.

  Barry Fairbrother had known all this; indeed, he had said it. He had laughed right across the table in the church hall, laughed right in Howard's face. 'You know, Howard, you are Pagford to me. ' And Howard, not discomposed in the slightest (for he had always met Barry joke for joke), had said, 'I'll take that as a great compliment, Barry, however it was intended. '

  He could afford to laugh. The one remaining ambition of Howard's life was within touching distance: the return of the Fields to Yarvil seemed imminent and certain.

  Then, two days before Barry Fairbrother had dropped dead in a car park, Howard had learned from an unimpeachable source that his opponent had broken all known rules of engagement, and had gone to the local paper with a story about the blessing it had been for Krystal Weedon to be educated at St Thomas's.

  The idea of Krystal Weedon being paraded in front of the reading public as an example of the successful integration of the Fields and Pagford might (so Howard said) have been funny, had it not been so serious. Doubtless Fairbrother would have coached the girl, and the truth about her foul mouth, the endlessly interrupted classes, the other children in tears, the constant removals and reintegrations, would be lost in lies.

  Howard trusted the good sense of his fellow townsfolk, but he feared journalistic spin and the interference of ignorant do-gooders. His objection was both principled and personal: he had not yet forgotten how his granddaughter had sobbed in his arms, with bloody sockets where her teeth had been, while he tried to soothe her with a promise of triple prizes from the tooth fairy.