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The Casual Vacancy, Page 34

J. K. Rowling

Part Four Chapter VI



  The next Parish Council meeting, the first since Barry had died, would be crucial in the ongoing battle over the Fields. Howard had refused to postpone the votes on the future of Bellchapel Addiction Clinic, or the town's wish to transfer jurisdiction of the estate to Yarvil.

  Parminder therefore suggested that she, Colin and Kay ought to meet up the evening before the meeting to discuss strategy.

  'Pagford can't unilaterally decide to alter the parish boundary, can it?' asked Kay.

  'No,' said Parminder patiently (Kay could not help being a newcomer), 'but the District Council has asked for Pagford's opinion, and Howard's determined to make sure it's his opinion that gets passed on. '

  They were holding their meeting in the Walls' sitting room, because Tessa had put subtle pressure on Colin to invite the other two where she could listen in. Tessa handed around glasses of wine, put a large bowl of crisps on the coffee table, then sat back in silence, while the other three talked.

  She was exhausted and angry. The anonymous post about Colin had brought on one of his most debilitating attacks of acute anxiety, so severe that he had been unable to go to school. Parminder knew how ill he was - she had signed him off work - yet she invited him to participate in this pre-meeting, not caring, it seemed, what fresh effusions of paranoia and distress Tessa would have to deal with tonight.

  'There's definitely resentment out there about the way the Mollisons are handling things,' Colin was saying, in the lofty, knowledgeable tone he sometimes adopted when pretending to be a stranger to fear and paranoia. 'I think it's starting to get up people's noses, the way they think that they can speak for the town. I've got that impression, you know, while I've been canvassing. '

  It would have been nice, thought Tessa bitterly, if Colin could have summoned these powers of dissimulation for her benefit occasionally. Once, long ago, she had liked being Colin's sole confidante, the only repository of his terrors and the font of all reassurance, but she no longer found it flattering. He had kept her awake from two o'clock until half-past three that morning, rocking backwards and forwards on the edge of the bed, moaning and crying, saying that he wished he were dead, that he could not take it, that he wished he had never stood for the seat, that he was ruined . . .

  Tessa heard Fats on the stairs, and tensed, but her son passed the open door on his way to the kitchen with nothing worse than a scathing glance at Colin, who was perched in front of the fire on a leather pouffe, his knees level with his chest.

  'Maybe Miles' standing for the empty seat will really antagonize people - even the Mollisons' natural supporters?' said Kay hopefully.

  'I think it might,' said Colin, nodding.

  Kay turned to Parminder.

  'D'you think the council will really vote to force Bellchapel out of their building? I know people get uptight about discarded needles, and addicts hanging around the neighbourhood, but the clinic's miles away . . . why does Pagford care?'

  'Howard and Aubrey are scratching each other's backs,' explained Parminder, whose face was taut, with dark brown patches under her eyes. (It was she who would have to attend the council meeting the next day, and fight Howard Mollison and his cronies without Barry by her side. ) 'They need to make cuts in spending at District level. If Howard turfs the clinic out of its cheap building, it'll be much more expensive to run and Fawley can say the costs have increased, and justify cutting council funding. Then Fawley will do his best to make sure that the Fields get reassigned to Yarvil. '

  Tired of explaining, Parminder pretended to examine the new stack of papers about Bellchapel that Kay had brought with her, easing herself out of the conversation.

  Why am I doing this? she asked herself.

  She could have been sitting at home with Vikram, who had been watching comedy on television with Jaswant and Rajpal as she left. The sound of their laughter had jarred on her; when had she last laughed? Why was she here, drinking nasty warm wine, fighting for a clinic that she would never need and a housing development inhabited by people she would probably dislike if she met them? She was not Bhai Kanhaiya, who could not see a difference between the souls of allies and enemies; she saw no light of God shining from Howard Mollison. She derived more pleasure from the thought of Howard losing, than from the thought of Fields children continuing to attend St Thomas's, or from Fields people being able to break their addictions at Bellchapel, although, in a distant and dispassionate way, she thought that these were good things . . .

  (But she knew why she was doing it, really. She wanted to win for Barry. He had told her all about coming to St Thomas's. His classmates had invited him home to play; he, who had been living in a caravan with his mother and two brothers, had relished the neat and comfortable houses of Hope Street, and been awed by the big Victorian houses on Church Row. He had even attended a birthday party in that very cow-faced house that he had subsequently bought, and where he had raised his four children.

  He had fallen in love with Pagford, with the river and the fields and the solid-walled houses. He had fantasized about having a garden to play in, a tree from which to hang a swing, space and greenness everywhere. He had collected conkers and taken them back to the Fields. After shining at St Thomas's, top of his class, Barry had gone on to be the first in his family to go to university.

  Love and hate, Parminder thought, a little frightened by her own honesty. Love and hate, that's why I'm here . . . )

  She turned over a page of Kay's documents, feigning concentration.

  Kay was pleased that the doctor was scrutinizing her papers so carefully, because she had put a lot of time and thought into them. She could not believe that anybody reading her material would not be convinced that the Bellchapel clinic ought to remain in situ.

  But through all the statistics, the anonymous case studies and first-person testimonies, Kay really thought of the clinic in terms of only one patient: Terri Weedon. There had been a change in Terri, Kay could feel it, and it made her both proud and frightened. Terri was showing faint glimmerings of an awakened sense of control over her life. Twice lately, Terri had said to Kay, 'They ain' takin' Robbie, I won' lerrem,' and these had not been impotent railings against fate, but statements of intent.

  'I took 'im ter nursery yest'day,' she told Kay, who had made the mistake of looking astonished. 'Why's tha' so fuckin' shockin'? Aren' I good enough ter go ter the fuckin' nurs'ry?'

  If Bellchapel's door was slammed shut against Terri, Kay was sure it would blow to pieces that delicate structure they were trying to build out of the wreckage of a life. Terri seemed to have a visceral fear of Pagford that Kay did not understand.

  'I 'ate that fuckin' place,' she had said, when Kay had mentioned it in passing.

  Beyond the fact that her dead grandmother had lived there, Kay knew nothing of Terri's history with the town, but she was afraid that if Terri was asked to travel there weekly for her methadone her self-control would crumble, and with it the family's fragile new safety.

  Colin had taken over from Parminder, explaining the history of the Fields; Kay nodded, bored, and said 'mm', but her thoughts were a long way away.

  Colin was deeply flattered by the way this attractive young woman was hanging on his every word. He felt calmer tonight than at any point since he had read that awful post, which was gone from the website. None of the cataclysms that Colin had imagined in the small hours had come to pass. He was not sacked. There was no angry mob outside his front door. Nobody on the Pagford Council website, or indeed anywhere else on the internet (he had performed several Google searches), was demanding his arrest or incarceration.

  Fats walked back past the open door, spooning yoghurt into his mouth as he went. He glanced into the room, and for a fleeting moment met Colin's gaze. Colin immediately lost the thread of what he had been saying.

  '. . . and . . . yes, well, that's it in a nutshell,' he finished lamely. He glanced
towards Tessa for reassurance, but his wife was staring stonily into space. Colin was a little hurt; he would have thought that Tessa would be glad to see him feeling so much better, so much more in control, after their wretched, sleepless night. Dreadful swooping sensations of dread were agitating his stomach, but he drew much comfort from the proximity of his fellow underdog and scapegoat Parminder, and from the sympathetic attention of the attractive social worker.

  Unlike Kay, Tessa had listened to every word that Colin had just said about the Fields' right to remain joined to Pagford. There was, in her opinion, no conviction behind his words. He wanted to believe what Barry had believed, and he wanted to defeat the Mollisons, because that was what Barry had wanted. Colin did not like Krystal Weedon, but Barry had liked her, so he assumed that there was more worth in her than he could see. Tessa knew her husband to be a strange mixture of arrogance and humility, of unshakeable conviction and insecurity.

  They're completely deluded, Tessa thought, looking at the other three, who were poring over some graph that Parminder had extracted from Kay's notes. They think they'll reverse sixty years of anger and resentment with a few sheets of statistics. None of them was Barry. He had been a living example of what they proposed in theory: the advancement, through education from poverty to affluence, from powerlessness and dependency to valuable contributor to society. Did they not see what hopeless advocates they were, compared to the man who had died?

  'People are definitely getting irritable with the Mollisons trying to run everything,' Colin was saying.

  'I do think,' said Kay, 'that they'll be hard-pushed, if they read this stuff, to pretend that the clinic isn't doing crucial work. '

  'Not everybody's forgotten Barry, on the council,' said Parminder, in a slightly shaky voice.

  Tessa realized that her greasy fingers were groping vainly in space. While the others had talked, she had single-handedly finished the entire bowl of crisps.