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The Casual Vacancy, Page 39

J. K. Rowling

Part Five Chapter I



  7. 32 A person who has made a defamatory statement may claim privilege for it if he can show that he made it without malice and in pursuit of a public duty.

  Charles Arnold-Baker

  Local Council Administration,

  Seventh Edition


  Terri Weedon was used to people leaving her. The first and greatest departure had been her mother's, who had never said goodbye, but had simply walked out one day with a suitcase while Terri was at school.

  There had been lots of social workers and care workers after she ran away at fourteen, and some of them had been nice enough, but they all left at the end of the working day. Every fresh departure added a fine new layer to the crust building over her core.

  She had had friends in care, but at sixteen they were all on their own, and life had scattered them. She met Ritchie Adams, and she bore him two children. Tiny little pink things, pure and beautiful like nothing in the whole world: and they had come out of her, and for shining hours in the hospital, twice, it had been like her own rebirth.

  And then they took the children from her, and she never saw them again, either.

  Banger had left her. Nana Cath had left her. Nearly everybody went, hardly anyone stayed. She ought to be used to it by now.

  When Mattie, her regular social worker, reappeared, Terri demanded, 'Where's the other one?'

  'Kay? She was only covering for me while I was ill,' said Mattie. 'So, where's Liam? No . . . I mean Robbie, don't I?'

  Terri did not like Mattie. For one thing, she did not have kids, and how could people who didn't have kids tell you how to raise them, how could they understand? She had not liked Kay, exactly, either . . . except that Kay gave you a funny feeling, the same feeling that Nana Cath had once given Terri, before she had called her a whore and told her she never wanted to see her again . . . you felt, with Kay - even though she carried folders, like the rest of them, even though she had instituted the case review - you felt that she wanted things to go right for you, and not only for the forms. You really did feel that. But she was gone, and she probably don't even think about us now, thought Terri furiously.

  On Friday afternoon, Mattie told Terri that Bellchapel would almost certainly close.

  'It's political,' she said briskly. 'They want to save money, but methadone treatment's unpopular with the District Council. Plus, Pagford wants them out of the building. It was all in the local paper, maybe you saw it?'

  Sometimes she spoke to Terri like that, veering into a kind of after-all-we're-in-this-together small-talk that jarred, because it sat alongside enquiries as to whether Terri was remembering to feed her son. But this time it was what she said, rather than how she said it, that upset Terri.

  'They're closin' it?' she repeated.

  'It looks that way,' said Mattie breezily, 'but it won't make any difference to you. Well, obviously . . . '

  Three times Terri had embarked upon the programme at Bellchapel. The dusty interior of the converted church with its partition walls and its flyers, the bathroom with its neon-blue light (so you could not find veins and shoot up in there), had become familiar and almost friendly. Lately, she had begun to sense in the workers there a change in the way they spoke to her. They had all expected her to fail again, in the beginning, but they had started talking to her the way Kay had talked: as if they knew a real person lived inside her pockmarked, burned body.

  ' . . . obviously, it will be different, but you can get your methadone from your GP instead,' said Mattie. She flipped over pages in the distended file that was the state's record of Terri's life. 'You're registered with Dr Jawanda in Pagford, right? Pagford . . . why are you going all the way out there?'

  'I smacked a nurse at Cantermill,' said Terri, almost absent-mindedly.

  After Mattie had left, Terri sat for a long time in her filthy chair in the sitting room, gnawing at her nails until they bled.

  The moment Krystal came home, bringing Robbie back from nursery, she told her that they were closing Bellchapel.

  'They ain't decided yet,' said Krystal with authority.

  'The fuck do you know?' demanded Terri. 'They're closin' it, and now they say I've gotta go to fuckin' Pagford to that bitch that killed Nana Cath. Well, I fuckin' ain't. '

  'You gotta,' said Krystal.

  Krystal had been like this for days; bossing her mother, acting as though she, Krystal, was the grown-up.

  'I ain' gotta do fuckin' anythin',' said Terri furiously. 'Cheeky little bitch,' she added, for good measure.

  'If you start fuckin' usin' again,' said Krystal, scarlet in the face, 'they'll take Robbie away. '

  He was still holding Krystal's hand, and burst into tears.

  'See?' both women shouted at each other.

  'You're fuckin' doin' it to him!' shouted Krystal. 'An' anyway, that doctor didn' do nuthin' to Nana Cath, that's all jus' Cheryl an' them talking shit!'

  'Fuckin' little know-it-all, ain't yeh?' yelled Terri. 'You know fuck-all - '

  Krystal spat at her.

  'Get the fuck out!' screamed Terri, and because Krystal was bigger and heavier she seized a shoe lying on the floor and brandished it. 'Gerrout!'

  'I fuckin' will!' yelled Krystal. 'An' I'll take Robbie an' all, an' you can stay here an' fuckin' screw Obbo an' make another one!'

  She dragged the wailing Robbie out with her before Terri could stop her.

  Krystal marched him all the way to her usual refuge, forgetting that at this time in the afternoon, Nikki would still be hanging around outside somewhere, not at home. It was Nikki's mum who opened the door, in her Asda uniform.

  'He ain' stayin' 'ere,' she told Krystal firmly, while Robbie whined and tried to pull his hand from Krystal's tight grip. 'Where's your mum?'

  'Home,' said Krystal, and everything else she wanted to say evaporated in the older woman's stern gaze.

  So she returned to Foley Road with Robbie, where Terri, bitterly triumphant, grabbed her son's arm, pulled him inside and blocked Krystal from entering.

  ''Ad enough of him already, 'ave yeh?' Terri jeered, over Robbie's wails. 'Fuck off. '

  And she slammed the door.

  Terri had Robbie sleep beside her on her own mattress that night. She lay awake and thought about how little she needed Krystal, and ached for her as badly as she had ever craved smack.

  Krystal had been angry for days. The thing that Krystal had said about Obbo . . .

  ('She said what?' he had laughed, incredulously, when they had met in the street, and Terri had muttered something about Krystal being upset. )

  . . . he wouldn't have done it. He couldn't have.

  Obbo was one of the few people who had hung around. Terri had known him since she was fifteen. They had gone to school together, hung out in Yarvil while she was in care, swigged cider together beneath the trees on the footpath that cut its way through the small patch of remaining farmland beside the Fields. They had shared their first joint.

  Krystal had never liked him. Jealous, thought Terri, watching Robbie sleep in the street light pouring through the thin curtains. Just jealous. He's done more for me than anyone, thought Terri defiantly, because when she tallied kindnesses she subtracted abandonment. Thus all of Nana Cath's care had been annihilated by her rejection.

  But Obbo had hidden her, once, from Ritchie, the father of her first two children, when she had fled the house barefoot and bleeding. Sometimes he gave her free bags of smack. She saw them as equivalent kindnesses. His refuges were more reliable than the little house in Hope Street that she had once, for three glorious days, thought was home.

  Krystal did not return on Saturday morning, but that was nothing new; Terri knew she must be at Nikki's. In a rage, because they were low on food, and she was out of cigarettes, and Robbie was whining for his sister, she stormed into her daughter's room and kicked her clothes aroun
d, searching for money or the odd, overlooked fag. Something clattered as she threw aside Krystal's crumpled old rowing kit, and she saw the little plastic jewellery box, upended, with the rowing medal that Krystal had won, and Tessa Wall's watch lying beneath it.

  Terri picked up the watch and stared at it. She had never seen it before. She wondered where Krystal had got it. Her first assumption was that Krystal had stolen it, but then she wondered whether she might have been given it by Nana Cath, or even left it in Nana Cath's will. That was a much more troubling thought than the idea of the watch being stolen. The idea of the sneaky little bitch hiding it away, treasuring it, never mentioning it . . .

  Terri put the watch inside the pocket of her tracksuit bottoms and bellowed for Robbie to come with her to the shops. It took ages to get him into his shoes, and Terri lost her temper and slapped him. She wished she could go to the shop alone, but the social workers did not like you leaving kids behind in the house, even though you could get things done much quicker without them.

  'Where's Krystal?' wailed Robbie, as she manhandled him out of the door. 'I wan' Krystal!'

  'I dunno where the little tart is,' snapped Terri, dragging him along the road.

  Obbo was on the corner beside the supermarket, talking to two men. When he saw her he raised a hand in greeting, and his two companions walked away.

  ''Ow's Ter?' he said.

  'N'bad,' she lied. 'Robbie, leggo. '

  He was digging his fingers so tightly into her thin leg that it hurt.

  'Listen,' said Obbo, 'couldja keep a bit more stuff for me fer a bit?'

  'Kinda stuff?' asked Terri, prising Robbie off her leg and holding his hand instead.

  'Coupla bags o' stuff,' said Obbo. 'Really help me out, Ter. '

  ''Ow long for?'

  'Few days. Bring it round this evenin'. Will yeh?'

  Terri thought of Krystal, and what she would say if she knew.

  'Yeah, go on then,' said Terri.

  She remembered something else, and pulled Tessa's watch out of her pocket. 'Gonna sell this, whaddaya reckon?'

  'Not bad,' said Obbo, weighing it in his hand. 'I'll give yeh twenty for it. Bring it over tonight?'

  Terri had thought the watch might be worth more, but she did not like to challenge him.

  'Yeah, all righ' then. '

  She took a few steps towards the supermarket entrance, hand in hand with Robbie, but then turned abruptly.

  'I ain' usin' though,' she said. 'So don' bring . . . '

  'Still on the mixture?' he said, grinning at her through his thick glasses. 'Bellchapel's done for, mind. All in the paper. '

  'Yeah,' she said miserably, and she tugged Robbie towards the entrance of the supermarket. 'I know. '

  I ain't going to Pagford, she thought, as she picked biscuits off the shelf. I ain't going there.

  She was almost inured to constant criticism and assessment, to the sideways glance of passers-by, to abuse from the neighbours, but she was not going to go all the way to that smug little town to get double helpings; to travel back in time, once a week, to the place where Nana Cath had said she would keep her, but let her go. She would have to pass that pretty little school that had sent horrible letters home about Krystal, saying that her clothes were too small and too dirty, that her behaviour was unacceptable. She was afraid of long-forgotten relatives emerging from Hope Street, as they squabbled over Nana Cath's house, and of what Cheryl would say, if she knew that Terri had entered into voluntary dealings with the Paki bitch who had killed Nana Cath. Another mark against her, in the family that despised her.

  'They ain't making me go to fuckin' Pagford,' Terri muttered aloud, pulling Robbie towards the checkout.