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The Casual Vacancy, Page 32

J. K. Rowling

Part Four Chapter IV



  The post about Parminder on the council website had driven Colin Wall's fears to a nightmarish new level. He could only guess how the Mollisons were getting their information, but if they knew that about Parminder . . .

  'For God's sake, Colin!' Tessa had said. 'It's just malicious gossip! There's nothing in it!'

  But Colin did not dare believe her. He was constitutionally prone to believing that others too lived with secrets that drove them half-demented. He could not even take comfort in knowing that he had spent most of his adult life in dread of calamities that had not materialized, because, by the law of averages, one of them was bound to come true one day.

  He was thinking about his imminent exposure, as he thought about it constantly, while walking back from the butcher's at half-past two, and it was not until the hubbub from the new cafe caught his startled attention that he realized where he was. He would have crossed to the other side of the Square if he had not been already level with the Copper Kettle's windows; mere proximity to any Mollison frightened him now. Then he saw something through the glass that made him do a double-take.

  When he entered their kitchen ten minutes later, Tessa was on the telephone to her sister. Colin deposited the leg of lamb in the fridge and marched upstairs, all the way to Fats' loft conversion. Flinging open the door, he saw, as he had expected, a deserted room.

  He could not remember the last time he had been in here. The floor was covered in dirty clothes. There was an odd smell, even though Fats had left the skylight propped open. Colin noticed a large matchbox on Fats' desk. He slid it open, and saw a mass of twisted cardboard stubs. A packet of Rizlas lay brazenly on the desk beside the computer.

  Colin's heart seemed to have toppled down out of his chest to thump against his guts.

  'Colin?' came Tessa's voice, from the landing below. 'Where are you?'

  'Up here!' he roared.

  She appeared at Fats' door looking frightened and anxious. Wordlessly, he picked up the matchbox and showed her the contents.

  'Oh,' said Tessa weakly.

  'He said he was going out with Andrew Price today,' said Colin. Tessa was frightened by the muscle working in Colin's jaw, an angry little bump moving from side to side. 'I've just been past that new cafe in the Square, and Andrew Price is working in there, mopping tables. So where's Stuart?'

  For weeks, Tessa had been pretending to believe Fats whenever he said that he was going out with Andrew. For days she had been telling herself that Sukhvinder must be mistaken in thinking that Fats was going out (would condescend, ever, to go out) with Krystal Weedon.

  'I don't know,' she said. 'Come down and have a cup of tea. I'll ring him. '

  'I think I'll wait here,' said Colin, and he sat down on Fats' unmade bed.

  'Come on, Colin - come downstairs,' said Tessa.

  She was scared of leaving him here. She did not know what he might find in the drawers or in Fats' school bag. She did not want him to look on the computer or under the bed. Refusing to probe dark corners had become her sole modus operandi.

  'Come downstairs, Col,' she urged him.

  'No,' said Colin, and he crossed his arms like a mutinous child, but with that muscle working in his jaw. 'Drugs in his bin. The son of the deputy headmaster. '

  Tessa, who had sat down on Fats' computer chair, felt a familiar thrill of anger. She knew that self-preoccupation was an inevitable consequence of his illness, but sometimes . . .

  'Plenty of teenagers experiment,' she said.

  'Still defending him, are you? Doesn't it ever occur to you that it's your constant excuses for him that make him think he can get away with blue murder?'

  She was trying to keep a curb on her temper, because she must be a buffer between them.

  'I'm sorry, Colin, but you and your job aren't the be all and end - '

  'I see - so if I get the sack - '

  'Why on earth would you get the sack?'

  'For God's sake!' shouted Colin, outraged. 'It all reflects on me - it's already bad enough - he's already one of the biggest problem students in the - '

  'That's not true!' shouted Tessa. 'Nobody but you thinks Stuart's anything other than a normal teenager. He's not Dane Tully!'

  'He's going the same way as Tully - drugs in his bin - '

  'I told you we should have sent him to Paxton High! I knew you'd make everything he did all about you, if he went to Winterdown! Is it any wonder he rebels, when his every movement is supposed to be a credit to you? I never wanted him to go to your school!'

  'And I,' bellowed Colin, jumping to his feet, 'never bloody wanted him at all!'

  'Don't say that!' gasped Tessa. 'I know you're angry - but don't say that!'

  The front door slammed two floors below them. Tessa looked around, frightened, as though Fats might materialize instantly beside them. It wasn't merely the noise that had made her start. Stuart never slammed the front door; he usually slipped in and out like a shape-shifter.

  His familiar tread on the stairs; did he know, or suspect they were in his room? Colin was waiting, with his fists clenched by his sides. Tessa heard the creak of the halfway step, and then Fats stood before them. She was sure he had arranged his expression in advance: a mixture of boredom and disdain.

  'Afternoon,' he said, looking from his mother to his rigid, tense father. He had all the self-possession that Colin had never had. 'This is a surprise. '

  Desperate, Tessa tried to show him the way.

  'Dad was worried about where you are,' she said, with a plea in her voice. 'You said you were going to be with Arf today, but Dad saw - '

  'Yeah, change of plan,' said Fats.

  He glanced towards the place where the matchbox had been.

  'So, do you want to tell us where you've been?' asked Colin. There were white patches around his mouth.

  'Yeah, if you like,' said Fats, and he waited.

  'Stu,' said Tessa, half whisper, half groan.

  'I've been out with Krystal Weedon,' said Fats.

  Oh God, no, thought Tessa. No, no, no . . .

  'You've what?' said Colin, so taken aback that he forgot to sound aggressive.

  'I've been out with Krystal Weedon,' Fats repeated, a little more loudly.

  'And since when,' said Colin, after an infinitesimal pause, 'has she been a friend of yours?'

  'A while,' said Fats.

  Tessa could see Colin struggling to formulate a question too grotesque to utter.

  'You should have told us, Stu,' she said.

  'Told you what?' he said.

  She was frightened that he was going to push the argument to a dangerous place.

  'Where you were going,' she said, standing up and trying to look matter of fact. 'Next time, call us. '

  She looked towards Colin in the hope that he might follow her lead and move towards the door. He remained fixed in the middle of the room, staring at Fats in horror.

  'Are you . . . involved with Krystal Weedon?' Colin asked.

  They faced each other, Colin taller by a few inches, but Fats holding all the power.

  '"Involved"?' Fats repeated. 'What d'you mean, "involved"?'

  'You know what I mean!' said Colin, his face growing red.

  'D'you mean, am I shagging her?' asked Fats.

  Tessa's little cry of 'Stu!' was drowned by Colin shouting, 'How bloody dare you!'

  Fats merely looked at Colin, smirking. Everything about him was a taunt and a challenge.

  'What?' said Fats.

  'Are you -' Colin was struggling to find the words, growing redder all the time, '- are you sleeping with Krystal Weedon?'

  'It wouldn't be a problem if I was, would it?' Fats asked, and he glanced at his mother as he said it. 'You're all for helping Krystal, aren't you?'

  'Helping - '

  'Aren't you trying to keep that addiction clinic open so y
ou can help Krystal's family?'

  'What's that got to do - ?'

  'I can't see what the problem is with me going out with her. '

  'And are you going out with her?' asked Tessa sharply. If Fats wanted to take the row into this territory, she would meet him there. 'Do you actually go anywhere with her, Stuart?'

  His smirk sickened her. He was not prepared even to pretend to some decency.

  'Well, we don't do it in either of our houses, do - '

  Colin had raised one of his stiff, clench-fisted arms and swung it. He connected with Fats' cheek, and Fats, whose attention had been on his mother, was caught off guard; he staggered sideways, hit the desk and slid, momentarily, to the floor. A moment later he had jumped to his feet again, but Tessa had already placed herself between the pair of them, facing her son.

  Behind her, Colin was repeating, 'You little bastard. You little bastard. '

  'Yeah?' said Fats, and he was no longer smirking. 'I'd rather be a little bastard than be you, you arsehole!'

  'No!' shouted Tessa. 'Colin, get out. Get out!'

  Horrified, furious and shaken, Colin lingered for a moment, then marched from the room; they heard him stumble a little on the stairs.

  'How could you?' Tessa whispered to her son.

  'How could I fucking what?' said Stuart, and the look on his face alarmed her so much that she hurried to close and bar the bedroom door.

  'You're taking advantage of that girl, Stuart, and you know it, and the way you just spoke to your - '

  'The fuck I am,' said Fats, pacing up and down, every semblance of cool gone. 'The fuck I'm taking advantage of her. She knows exactly what she wants - just because she lives in the fucking Fields, it doesn't - the truth is, you and Cubby don't want me to shag her because you think she's beneath - '

  'That's not true!' said Tessa, even though it was, and for all her concern about Krystal, she would still have been glad to know that Fats had sense enough to wear a condom.

  'You're fucking hypocrites, you and Cubby,' he said, still pacing the length of the bedroom. 'All the bollocks the pair of you spout about wanting to help the Weedons, but you don't want - '

  'That's enough!' shouted Tessa. 'Don't you dare speak to me like that! Don't you realise - don't you understand - are you so damn selfish . . . ?'

  Words failed her. She turned, tugged open his door and was gone, slamming it behind her.

  Her exit had an odd effect on Fats, who stopped pacing and stared at the closed door for several seconds. Then he searched his pockets, drew out a cigarette and lit it, not bothering to blow the smoke out of the skylight. Round and round his room he walked, and he had no control of his own thoughts: jerky, unedited images filled his brain, sweeping past on a tide of fury.

  He remembered the Friday evening, nearly a year previously, when Tessa had come up here to his bedroom to tell him that his father wanted to take him out to play football with Barry and his sons next day.

  ('What?' Fats had been staggered. The suggestion was unprecedented.

  'For fun. A kick-around,' Tessa had said, avoiding Fats' glare by scowling down at the clothes littering the floor.


  'Because Dad thought it might be nice,' said Tessa, bending to pick up a school shirt. 'Declan wants a practice, or something. He's got a match. '

  Fats was quite good at football. People found it surprising; they expected him to dislike sport, to disdain teams. He played as he talked, skilfully, with many a feint, fooling the clumsy, daring to take chances, unconcerned if they did not come off.

  'I didn't even know he could play. '

  'Dad can play very well, he was playing twice a week when we met,' said Tessa, riled. 'Ten o'clock tomorrow morning, all right? I'll wash your tracksuit bottoms. ')

  Fats sucked on his cigarette, remembering against his will. Why had he gone along with it? Today, he would have simply refused to participate in Cubby's little charade, but remained in bed until the shouting died away. A year ago he had not yet understood about authenticity.

  (Instead he had left the house with Cubby and endured a silent five-minute walk, each equally aware of the enormous shortfall that filled all the space between them.

  The playing field belonged to St Thomas's. It had been sunny and deserted. They had divided into two teams of three, because Declan had a friend staying for the weekend. The friend, who clearly hero-worshipped Fats, had joined Fats and Cubby's team.

  Fats and Cubby passed to each other in silence, while Barry, easily the worst player, had yelled, cajoled and cheered in his Yarvil accent as he tore up and down the pitch they had marked out with sweatshirts. When Fergus scored, Barry had run at him for a flying chest bump, mistimed it and smashed Fergus on the jaw with the top of his head. The two of them had fallen to the ground, Fergus groaning in pain and laughing, while Barry sat apologizing through his roars of mirth. Fats had found himself grinning, then heard Cubby's awkward, booming laugh and turned away, scowling.

  And then had come that moment, that cringeworthy, pitiful moment, with the scores equal and nearly time to go, when Fats had successfully wrested the ball from Fergus, and Cubby had shouted, 'Come on, Stu, lad!'

  'Lad. ' Cubby had never said 'lad' in his life. It sounded pitiful, hollow and unnatural. He was trying to be like Barry; imitating Barry's easy, unself-conscious encouragement of his sons; trying to impress Barry.

  The ball had flown like a cannon ball from Fats' foot and there was time, before it hit Cubby full in his unsuspecting, foolish face, before his glasses cracked, and a single drop of blood bloomed beneath his eye, to realize his own intent; to know that he had hoped to hit Cubby, and that the ball had been dispatched for retribution. )

  They had never played football again. The doomed little experiment in father-son togetherness had been shelved, like a dozen before it.

  And I never wanted him at all!

  He was sure he had heard it. Cubby must have been talking about him. They had been in his room. Who else could Cubby have been talking about?

  Like I give a shit, thought Fats. It was what he'd always suspected. He did not know why this sensation of spreading cold had filled his chest.

  Fats pulled the computer chair back into position, from the place where it had been knocked when Cubby had hit him. The authentic reaction would have been to shove his mother out of the way and punch Cubby in the face. Crack his glasses again. Make him bleed. Fats was disgusted with himself that he had not done it.

  But there were other ways. He had overheard things for years. He knew much more about his father's ludicrous fears than they thought.

  Fats' fingers were clumsier than usual. Ash spilt onto the keyboard from the cigarette in his mouth as he brought up the Parish Council website. Weeks previously, he had looked up SQL injections and found the line of code that Andrew had refused to share. After studying the council message board for a few minutes, he logged himself in, without difficulty, as Betty Rossiter, changed her username to The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother, and began to type.