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The Casual Vacancy, Page 38

J. K. Rowling

Part Four Chapter X



  At nine o'clock on the morning of the election for Barry's seat, Parminder left the Old Vicarage and walked up Church Row to the Walls' house. She rapped on the door and waited until, at last, Colin appeared.

  There were shadows around his bloodshot eyes and beneath his cheekbones; his skin seemed to have thinned and his clothes grown too big. He had not yet returned to work. The news that Parminder had screamed confidential medical information about Howard in public had set back his tentative recovery; the more robust Colin of a few nights ago, who had sat on the leather pouffe and pretended to be confident of victory, might never have been.

  'Is everything all right?' he asked, closing the door behind her, looking wary.

  'Yes, fine,' she said. 'I thought you might like to walk down the church hall with me, to vote. '

  'I - no,' he said weakly. 'I'm sorry. '

  'I know how you feel, Colin,' said Parminder, in a small tight voice. 'But if you don't vote, it means they've won. I'm not going to let them win. I'm going to go down there and vote for you, and I want you to come with me. '

  Parminder was effectively suspended from work. The Mollisons had complained to every professional body for which they could find an address, and Dr Crawford had advised Parminder to take time off. To her great surprise, she felt strangely liberated.

  But Colin was shaking his head. She thought she saw tears in his eyes.

  'I can't, Minda. '

  'You can!' she said. 'You can, Colin! You've got to stand up to them! Think of Barry!'

  'I can't - I'm sorry - I . . . '

  He made a choking noise and burst into tears. Colin had cried in her surgery before now; sobbed in desperation at the burden of fear he carried with him every day of his life.

  'Come on,' she said, unembarrassed, and she took his arm and steered him through to the kitchen, where she handed him kitchen roll and let him sob himself into hiccups again. 'Where's Tessa?'

  'At work,' he gasped, mopping his eyes.

  There was an invitation to Howard Mollison's sixty-fifth birthday party lying on the kitchen table; somebody had torn it neatly in two.

  'I got one of those, as well,' said Parminder. 'Before I shouted at him. Listen, Colin. Voting - '

  'I can't,' whispered Colin.

  ' - shows them they haven't beaten us. '

  'But they have,' said Colin.

  Parminder burst out laughing. After contemplating her with his mouth open for a moment, Colin started to laugh too: a big, booming guffaw, like the bark of a mastiff.

  'All right, they've run us out of our jobs,' said Parminder, 'and neither of us wants to leave the house but, other than that, I think we're in very good shape indeed. '

  Colin took off his glasses and dabbed his wet eyes, grinning.

  'Come on, Colin. I want to vote for you. It isn't over yet. After I blew my top, and told Howard Mollison he was no better than a junkie in front of the whole council and the local press - '

  He burst out laughing again and she was delighted; she had not heard him laugh so much since New Year, and then it had been Barry making him do it.

  ' - they forgot to vote on forcing the addiction clinic out of Bellchapel. So, please. Get your coat. We'll walk down there together. '

  Colin's snorts and giggles died away. He stared down at the big hands fumbled over each other, as if he were washing them clean.

  'Colin, it's not over. You've made a difference. People don't like the Mollisons. If you get in, we'd be in a much stronger position to fight. Please, Colin. '

  'All right,' he said, after a few moments, awed by his own daring.

  It was a short walk, in the fresh clean air, each of them clutching their voter registration cards. The church hall was empty of voters apart from themselves. Each put a thick pencil cross beside Colin's name and left with the sense that they had got away with something.

  Miles Mollison did not vote until midday. He paused at his partner's door on the way out.

  'I'm off to vote, Gav,' he said.

  Gavin indicated the telephone pressed against his ear; he was on hold with Mary's insurance company.

  'Oh - right - I'm off to vote, Shona,' said Miles, turning to their secretary.

  There was no harm in reminding them both that he was in need of their support. Miles jogged downstairs and proceeded to the Copper Kettle, where, during a brief post-coital chat, he had arranged to meet his wife so that they could go down to the church hall together.

  Samantha had spent the morning at home, leaving her assistant in charge at the shop. She knew that she could no longer put off telling Carly that they were out of business, and that Carly was out of a job, but she could not bring herself to do it before the weekend and the concert in London. When Miles appeared, and she saw his excited little grin, she experienced a rush of fury.

  'Dad not coming?' were his first words.

  'They're going down after closing time,' said Samantha.

  There were two old ladies in the voting booths when she and Miles got there. Samantha waited, looking at the backs of their iron-grey perms, their thick coats and their thicker ankles. That was how she would look one day. The more crooked of the two old women noticed Miles as they left, beamed, and said, 'I've just voted for you!'

  'Well, thank you very much!' said Miles, delighted.

  Samantha entered the booth and stared down at the two names: Miles Mollison and Colin Wall, the pencil, tied to the end of a piece of string, in her hand. Then she scribbled 'I hate bloody Pagford' across the paper, folded it over, crossed to the ballot box and dropped it, unsmiling, through the slot.

  'Thanks, love,' said Miles quietly, with a pat on her back.

  Tessa Wall, who had never failed to vote in an election before, drove past the church hall on her way back home from school and did not stop. Ruth and Simon Price spent the day talking more seriously than ever about the possibility of moving to Reading. Ruth threw out their voter registration cards while clearing the kitchen table for supper.

  Gavin had never intended to vote; if Barry had been alive to stand, he might have done so, but he had no desire to help Miles achieve another of his life's goals. At half-past five he packed up his briefcase, irritable and depressed, because he had finally run out of excuses not to have dinner at Kay's. It was particularly irksome, because there were hopeful signs that the insurance company was shifting in Mary's favour, and he had very much wanted to go over and tell her so. This meant that he would have to store up the news until tomorrow; he did not want to waste it on the telephone.

  When Kay opened the door to him, she launched at once into the rapid, quick-fire talk that usually meant she was in a bad mood.

  'Sorry, it's been a dreadful day,' she said, although he had not complained, and they had barely exchanged greetings. 'I was late back, I meant to be further on with dinner, come through. '

  From upstairs came the insistent crash of drums and a loud bass line. Gavin was surprised that the neighbours were not complaining. Kay saw him glance up at the ceiling and said, 'Oh, Gaia's furious because some boy she liked back in Hackney has started going out with another girl. '

  She seized the glass of wine she was already drinking and took a big gulp. Her conscience had hurt her when she called Marco de Luca 'some boy'. He had virtually moved into their house in the weeks before they had left London. Kay had found him charming, considerate and helpful. She would have liked a son like Marco.

  'She'll live,' said Kay, pushing the memories away, and she returned to the potatoes she was boiling. 'She's sixteen. You bounce at that age. Help yourself to wine. '

  Gavin sat down at the table, wishing that Kay would make Gaia turn the music down. She had virtually to shout at him over the vibration of the bass, the rattling saucepan lids and the noisy extractor fan. He yearned again for the melancholy calm of Mary's big kitchen, for Mary's gratitude, her need f
or him.

  'What?' he said loudly, because he could tell that Kay had just asked him something.

  'I said, did you vote?'


  'In the council election!' she said.

  'No,' he replied. 'Couldn't care less. '

  He was not sure whether she had heard. She was talking again, and only when she turned to the table with knives and forks could he hear her clearly.

  '. . . absolutely disgusting, actually, that the parish is colluding with Aubrey Fawley. I expect Bellchapel will be finished if Miles gets in . . . '

  She drained the potatoes and the splatter and crash drowned her temporarily again.

  '. . . if that silly woman hadn't lost her temper, we might be in with a better shot. I gave her masses of stuff on the clinic and I don't think she used any of it. She just screamed at Howard Mollison that he was too fat. Talk about unprofessional . . . '

  Gavin had heard rumours about Dr Jawanda's public outburst. He had found it mildly amusing.

  '. . . all this uncertainty's very damaging to the people who work at that clinic, not to mention the clients. '

  But Gavin could muster neither pity nor indignation; all he felt was dismay at the firm grip Kay seemed to have on the intricacies and personalities involved in this esoteric local issue. It was yet another indication of how she was driving roots deeper and deeper into Pagford. It would take a lot to dislodge her now.

  He turned his head and gazed out of the window onto the overgrown garden beyond. He had offered to help Fergus with Mary's garden this weekend. With luck, he thought, Mary would invite him to stay for dinner again, and if she did, he would skip Howard Mollison's sixty-fifth birthday party, to which Miles seemed to think he was looking forward with excitement.

  '. . . wanted to keep the Weedons, but no, Gillian says we can't cherry-pick. Would you call that cherry-picking?'

  'Sorry, what?' asked Gavin.

  'Mattie's back,' she said, and he had to struggle to recollect that this was a colleague of hers, whose cases she had been covering. 'I wanted to keep working with the Weedons, because sometimes you do get a particular feeling for a family, but Gillian won't let me. It's crazy. '

  'You must be the only person in the world who ever wanted to keep the Weedons,' said Gavin. 'From what I've heard, anyway. '

  It took nearly all Kay's willpower not to snap at him. She pulled the salmon fillets she had been baking out of the oven. Gaia's music was so loud that she could feel it vibrating through the tray, which she slammed down on the hob.

  'Gaia!' she screamed, making Gavin jump as she strode past him to the foot of the stairs. 'GAIA! Turn it down! I mean it! TURN IT DOWN!'

  The volume diminished by perhaps a decibel. Kay marched back into the kitchen, fuming. The row with Gaia, before Gavin arrived, had been one of their worst ever. Gaia had stated her intention of telephoning her father and asking to move in with him.

  'Well, good luck with that!' Kay had shouted.

  But perhaps Brendan would say yes. He had left her when Gaia was only a month old. Brendan was married now, with three other children. He had a huge house and a good job. What if he said yes?

  Gavin was glad that he did not have to talk as they ate; the thumping music filled the silence, and he could think about Mary in peace. He would tell her tomorrow that the insurance company was making conciliatory noises, and receive her gratitude and admiration . . .

  He had almost cleared his plate when he realized that Kay had not eaten a single mouthful. She was staring at him across the table, and her expression alarmed him. Perhaps he had somehow revealed his inner thoughts . . .

  Gaia's music came to an abrupt halt overhead. The throbbing quiet was dreadful to Gavin; he wished that Gaia would put something else on, quickly.

  'You don't even try,' Kay said miserably. 'You don't even pretend to care, Gavin. '

  He attempted to take the easy way out.

  'Kay, I've had a long day,' he said. 'I'm sorry if I'm not up to the minutiae of local politics the second I walk - '

  'I'm not talking about local politics,' she said. 'You sit there looking as if you'd rather be anywhere else - it's - it's offensive. What do you want, Gavin?'

  He saw Mary's kitchen, and her sweet face.

  'I have to beg to see you,' Kay said, 'and when you come round here you couldn't make it clearer that you don't want to come. '

  She wanted him to say 'that's not true'. The last point at which a denial might have counted slunk past. They were sliding, at increasing speed, towards that crisis which Gavin both urgently desired and dreaded.

  'Tell me what you want,' she said wearily. 'Just tell me. '

  Both could feel the relationship crumbling to pieces beneath the weight of everything that Gavin refused to say. It was with a sense of putting them both out of their misery that he reached for words that he had not intended to speak aloud, perhaps ever, but which, in some way, seemed to excuse both of them.

  'I didn't want this to happen,' Gavin said earnestly. 'I didn't mean it to. Kay, I'm really sorry, but I think I'm in love with Mary Fairbrother. '

  He saw from her expression that she had not been prepared for this.

  'Mary Fairbrother?' she repeated.

  'I think,' he said (and there was a bittersweet pleasure in talking about it, even though he knew he was wounding her; he had not been able to say it to anyone else), 'it's been there for a long time. I never acknowledged - I mean, when Barry was alive I'd never have - '

  'I thought he was your best friend,' whispered Kay.

  'He was. '

  'He's only been dead a few weeks!'

  Gavin did not like hearing that.

  'Look,' he said, 'I'm trying to be honest with you. I'm trying to be fair. '

  'You're trying to be fair?'

  He had always imagined it ending in a blaze of fury, but she simply watched him putting on his coat with tears in her eyes.

  'I'm sorry,' he said, and walked out of her house for the last time.

  On the pavement, he experienced a rush of elation, and hurried to his car. He would be able to tell Mary about the insurance company tonight, after all.