Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Casual Vacancy, Page 41

J. K. Rowling

Part Five Chapter III



  To Gavin's disappointment, it seemed that he would have to attend Howard Mollison's birthday party after all. If Mary, a client of the firm and the widow of his best friend, had asked him to stay for dinner, he would have considered himself more than justified in skipping it . . . but Mary had not asked him to stay. She had family visiting, and she had been oddly flustered when he had turned up.

  She doesn't want them to know, he thought, taking comfort in her self-consciousness as she ushered him towards the door.

  He drove back to the Smithy, replaying his conversation with Kay in his mind.

  I thought he was your best friend. He's only been dead a few weeks!

  Yeah, and I was looking after her for Barry, he retorted in his head, which is what he'd have wanted. Neither of us expected this to happen. Barry's dead. It can't hurt him now.

  Alone in the Smithy he looked out a clean suit for the party, because the invitation said 'formal', and tried to imagine gossipy little Pagford relishing the story of Gavin and Mary.

  So what? he thought, staggered by his own bravery. Is she supposed to be alone for ever? It happens. I was looking after her.

  And in spite of his reluctance to attend a party that was sure to be dull and exhausting, he was buoyed inside by a little bubble of excitement and happiness.

  Up in Hilltop House, Andrew Price was styling his hair with his mother's blow-drier. He had never looked forward to a disco or a party as much as he had longed for tonight. He, Gaia and Sukhvinder were being paid by Howard to serve food and drinks at the party. Howard had hired him a uniform for the occasion: a white shirt, black trousers and a bow tie. He would be working alongside Gaia, not as potboy but as a waiter.

  But there was more to his anticipation than this. Gaia had split up with the legendary Marco de Luca. He had found her crying about it in the back yard of the Copper Kettle that afternoon, when he had gone outside for a smoke.

  'His loss,' Andrew had said, trying to keep the delight out of his voice.

  And she had sniffed and said, 'Cheers, Andy. '

  'You little poofter,' said Simon, when Andrew finally turned off the drier. He had been waiting to say it for several minutes, standing on the dark landing, staring through the gap in the door, which was ajar, watching Andrew preen himself in the mirror. Andrew jumped, then laughed. His good humour discomposed Simon.

  'Look at you,' he jeered, as Andrew passed him on the landing in his shirt and bow tie. 'With your dicky-bow. You look a twat. '

  And you're unemployed, and I did it to you, dickhead.

  Andrew's feelings about what he had done to his father changed almost hourly. Sometimes the guilt would bear down on him, tainting everything, but then it would melt away, leaving him glorying in his secret triumph. Tonight, the thought of it gave extra heat to the excitement burning beneath Andrew's thin white shirt, an additional tingle to the goose-flesh caused by the rush of evening air as he sped, on Simon's racing bike, down the hill into town. He was excited, full of hope. Gaia was available and vulnerable. Her father lived in Reading.

  Shirley Mollison was standing in a party dress outside the church hall when he cycled up, tying giant gold helium balloons in the shapes of fives and sixes to the railings.

  'Hello, Andrew,' she trilled. 'Bike away from the entrance, please. '

  He wheeled it along to the corner, passing a brand-new, racing green BMW convertible parked feet away. He walked around the car on his way inside, taking in the luxurious inner fittings.

  'And here's Andy!'

  Andrew saw at once that his boss's good humour and excitement were equal to his own. Howard was striding down the hall, wearing an immense velvet dinner jacket; he resembled a conjuror. There were only five or six other people dotted around: the party would not start for twenty minutes. Blue, white and gold balloons had been fastened up everywhere. There was a massive trestle table largely covered in plates draped with tea-towels, and at the top of the hall a middle-aged DJ setting up his equipment.

  'Go help Maureen, Andy, will you?'

  She was laying out glasses at one end of the long table, caught gaudily in a stream of light from an overhead lamp.

  'Don't you look handsome!' she croaked as he approached.

  She was wearing a scant, stretchy shiny dress that revealed every contour of the bony body to which unexpected little rolls and pads of flesh still clung, exposed by the unforgiving fabric. From somewhere out of sight came a small 'hi'; Gaia was crouching over a box of plates on the floor.

  'Glasses out of boxes, please, Andy,' said Maureen, 'and set them up here, where we're having the bar. '

  He did as he was told. As he unpacked the box, a woman he had never seen before approached, carrying several bottles of champagne.

  'These should go in the fridge, if there is one. '

  She had Howard's straight nose, Howard's big blue eyes and Howard's curly fair hair, but whereas his features were womanish, softened by fat, his daughter - she had to be his daughter - was unpretty yet striking, with low brows, big eyes and a cleft chin. She was wearing trousers and an open-necked silk shirt. After dumping the bottles onto the table she turned away. Her demeanour, and something about the quality of her clothing, made Andrew sure that she was the owner of the BMW outside.

  'That's Patricia,' whispered Gaia in his ear, and his skin tingled again as though she carried an electric charge. 'Howard's daughter. '

  'Yeah, I thought so,' he said, but he was much more interested to see that Gaia was unscrewing the cap of a bottle of vodka and pouring out a measure. As he watched, she drank it straight off with a little shudder. She had barely replaced the top when Maureen reappeared beside them with an ice bucket.

  'Bloody old slapper,' said Gaia, as Maureen walked away, and Andrew smelt the spirits on her breath. 'Look at the state of her. '

  He laughed, turned and stopped abruptly, because Shirley was right beside them, smiling her pussycat smile.

  'Has Miss Jawanda not arrived yet?' she asked.

  'She's on her way, she just texted me,' said Gaia.

  But Shirley did not really care where Sukhvinder was. She had overheard Andrew and Gaia's little exchange about Maureen, and it had completely restored the good mood that had been dented by Maureen's evident delight in her own toilette. It was difficult to satisfactorily puncture self-esteem so obtuse, so deluded, but as Shirley walked away from the teenagers towards the DJ, she planned what she would say to Howard the next time she saw him alone.

  I'm afraid the young ones were, well, laughing at Maureen . . . it's such a pity she wore that dress . . . I hate seeing her make a fool of herself.

  There was plenty to be pleased about, Shirley reminded herself, for she needed a little bolstering tonight. She and Howard and Miles were all going to be on the council together; it would be marvellous, simply marvellous.

  She checked that the DJ knew that Howard's favourite song was 'The Green, Green Grass of Home', Tom Jones' version, and looked around for more little jobs to do: but instead her gaze fell upon the reason that her happiness, tonight, had not quite that perfect quality she had anticipated.

  Patricia was standing alone, staring up at the Pagford coat of arms on the wall, and making no effort to talk to anybody. Shirley wished that Patricia would wear a skirt sometimes; but at least she had arrived alone. Shirley had been afraid that the BMW might contain another person, and that absence was something gained.

  You weren't supposed to dislike your own child; you were supposed to like them no matter what, even if they were not what you wanted, even if they turned out to be the kind of person that you would have crossed the street to avoid had you not been related. Howard took a large view of the whole matter; he even joked about it, in a mild way, beyond Patricia's hearing. Shirley could not rise to those heights of detachment. She felt compelled to join Patricia, in the vague, unconscious hope that she m
ight dilute the strangeness she was afraid everyone else would smell by her own exemplary dress and behaviour.

  'Do you want a drink, darling?'

  'Not yet,' said Patricia, still staring up at the Pagford arms. 'I had a heavy night last night. Probably still over the limit. We were out drinking with Melly's office pals. '

  Shirley smiled vaguely up at the crest above them.

  'Melly's fine, thanks for asking,' said Patricia.

  'Oh, good,' said Shirley.

  'I liked the invitation,' said Patricia. 'Pat and guest. '

  'I'm sorry, darling, but that's just what you put, you know, when people aren't married - '

  'Ah, that's what it says in Debrett's, does it? Well, Melly didn't want to come if she wasn't even named on the invitation, so we had a massive row, and here I am, alone. Result, eh?'

  Patricia stalked away towards the drinks, leaving Shirley a little shaken behind her. Patricia's rages had been frightening even as a child.

  'You're late, Miss Jawanda,' she called, recovering her composure as a flustered Sukhvinder came hurrying towards her. In Shirley's opinion, the girl was demonstrating a kind of insolence turning up at all, after what her mother had said to Howard, here, in this very hall. She watched her hurry to join Andrew and Gaia, and thought that she would tell Howard that they ought to let Sukhvinder go. She was tardy, and there was probably a hygiene issue with the eczema she was hiding under the long-sleeved black T-shirt; Shirley made a mental note to check whether it was contagious, on her favourite medical website.

  Guests began to arrive promptly at eight o'clock. Howard told Gaia to come and stand beside him and collect coats, because he wanted everyone to see him ordering her around by name, in that little black dress and frilly apron. But there were soon too many coats for her to carry alone, so he summoned Andrew to help.

  'Nick a bottle,' Gaia ordered Andrew, as they hung coats three and four deep in the tiny cloakroom, 'and hide it in the kitchen. We can take it in turns to go and have some. '

  'OK,' said Andrew, elated.

  'Gavin!' cried Howard, as his son's partner came through the door alone at half-past eight.

  'Kay not with you, Gavin?' asked Shirley swiftly (Maureen was changing into sparkly stilettos behind the trestle table, so there was very little time to steal a march on her).

  'No, she couldn't make it, unfortunately,' said Gavin; then, to his horror, he came face to face with Gaia, who was waiting to take his coat.

  'Mum could have made it,' said Gaia, in a clear, carrying voice, as she glared at him. 'But Gavin's dumped her, haven't you, Gav?'

  Howard clapped Gavin on the shoulder, pretending he had not heard, and boomed, 'Great to see you, go get yourself a drink. '

  Shirley's expression remained impassive, but the thrill of the moment did not subside quickly, and she was a little dazed and dreamy, greeting the next few guests. When Maureen tottered over in her awful dress to join the greeting party, Shirley took immense pleasure in telling her quietly: 'We've had a very awkward little scene. Very awkward. Gavin and Gaia's mother . . . oh, dear . . . if we'd known . . . '

  'What? What's happened?'

  But Shirley shook her head, savouring the exquisite pleasure of Maureen's frustrated curiosity, and opened her arms wide as Miles, Samantha and Lexie entered the hall.

  'Here he is! Parish Councillor Miles Mollison!'

  Samantha watched Shirley hugging Miles as though from a great distance. She had moved so abruptly from happiness and anticipation to shock and disappointment that her thoughts had become white noise, against which she had to fight to take in the exterior world.

  (Miles had said: 'That's great! You can come to Dad's party, you were only just saying - '

  'Yes,' she had replied, 'I know. It is great, isn't it?'

  But when he had seen her dressed in the jeans and band T-shirt she had been visualizing herself in for over a week, he had been perplexed.

  'It's formal. '

  'Miles, it's the church hall in Pagford. '

  'I know, but the invitation - '

  'I'm wearing this. ')

  'Hello, Sammy,' said Howard. 'Look at you. You needn't have dressed up. '

  But his embrace was as lascivious as ever, and he patted her tightly jeaned backside.

  Samantha gave Shirley a cold tight smile and walked past her towards the drinks. A nasty voice inside her head was asking: but what did you think was going to happen at the concert, anyway? What was the point? What were you after?

  Nothing. A bit of fun.

  The dream of strong young arms and laughter, which was to have had some kind of catharsis tonight; her own thin waist encircled again, and the sharp taste of the new, the unexplored; her fantasy had lost wings, it was plummeting back to earth . . .

  I only wanted to look.

  'Looking good, Sammy. '

  'Cheers, Pat. '

  She had not met her sister-in-law for over a year.

  I like you more than anyone else in this family, Pat.

  Miles had caught up with her; he kissed his sister.

  'How are you? How's Mel? Isn't she here?'

  'No, she didn't want to come,' said Patricia. She was drinking champagne, but from her expression, it might have been vinegar. 'The invitation said Pat and guest are invited . . . huge bloody row. One up to Mum. '

  'Oh, Pat, come on,' said Miles, smiling.

  'Oh, Pat, fucking come on what, Miles?'

  A furious delight took hold of Samantha: a pretext to attack.

  'That's a bloody rude way to invite your sister's partner and you know it, Miles. Your mother could do with some lessons in manners, if you ask me. '

  He was fatter, surely, than he had been a year ago. She could see his neck bulging over the collar of his shirt. His breath went sour quickly. He had a little trick of bouncing on his toes that he had caught from his father. She experienced a surge of physical disgust and walked away to the end of the trestle table, where Andrew and Sukhvinder were busy filling and handing out glasses.

  'Have you got any gin?' Samantha asked. 'Give me a big one. '

  She barely recognized Andrew. He poured her a measure, trying not to look at her breasts, boundlessly exposed in the T-shirt, but it was like trying not to squint in direct sunlight.

  'Do you know them?' Samantha asked, after downing half a glass of gin and tonic.

  A blush had risen before Andrew could marshal his thoughts. To his horror, she gave a reckless cackle, and said, 'The band. I'm talking about the band. '

  'Yeah, I - yeah, I've heard of them. I don't . . . not my kind of thing. '

  'Is that right?' she said, throwing back the rest of her drink. 'I'll have another one of those, please. '

  She realized who he was: the mousy boy from the delicatessen. His uniform made him look older. Maybe a couple of weeks of lugging pallets up and down the cellar steps had built some muscle.

  'Oh, look,' said Samantha, spotting a figure heading away from her into the growing crowd, 'there's Gavin. The second most boring man in Pagford. After my husband, obviously. '

  She strode off, pleased with herself, holding her new drink; the gin had hit her where she most needed it, anaesthetizing and stimulating at the same time, and as she walked she thought: he liked my tits; let's see what he thinks of my arse.

  Gavin saw Samantha coming and tried to deflect her by joining somebody else's conversation, anybody's; the nearest person was Howard and he insinuated himself hastily into the group around his host.

  'I took a risk,' Howard was saying to three other men; he was waving a cigar, and a little ash had dribbled down the front of his velvet jacket. 'I took a risk and I put in the graft. Simple as that. No magic formula. Nobody handed me - oh, here's Sammy. Who are those young men, Samantha?'

  While four elderly men stared at the pop group stretched across her breasts, Samantha turned to Gavin.

  'Hi,' she said, leanin
g in and forcing him to kiss her. 'Kay not here?'

  'No,' said Gavin shortly.

  'Talking about business, Sammy,' said Howard happily, and Samantha thought of her shop, failed and finished. 'I was a self-starter,' he informed the group, reprising what was clearly an established theme. 'That's all there is to it. That's all you need. I was a self-starter. '

  Massive and globular, he was like a miniature velvety sun, radiating satisfaction and contentment. His tones were already rounded and mellowed by the brandy in his hand. 'I was ready to take a risk - could've lost everything. '

  'Well, your mum could have lost everything,' Samantha corrected him. 'Didn't Hilda mortgage her house to put up half the deposit on the shop?'

  She saw the tiny flicker in Howard's eyes, but his smile remained constant.

  'All credit to my mother, then,' he said, 'for working and scrimping and saving, and giving her son a start. I multiply what I was given, and I give back to the family - pay for your girls to go to St Anne's - what goes round, comes round, eh, Sammy?'

  She expected this from Shirley, but not from Howard. Both of them drained their glasses, and Samantha watched Gavin drift away without trying to stop him.

  Gavin was wondering whether it would be possible to slip out unnoticed. He was nervous, and the noise was making it worse. A horrible idea had taken possession of him since meeting Gaia at the door. What if Kay had told her daughter everything? What if the girl knew that he was in love with Mary Fairbrother, and told other people? It was the sort of thing that a vengeful sixteen-year-old might do.

  The very last thing he wanted was for Pagford to know that he was in love with Mary before he had a chance to tell her himself. He had imagined doing it months and months hence, perhaps a year down the line . . . letting the first anniversary of Barry's death slip by . . . and, in the mean time, nurturing the tiny shoots of trust and reliance that were already there, so that the reality of her feelings stole gradually upon her, as they had upon him . . .

  'You haven't got a drink, Gav!' said Miles. 'That situation must be remedied!'

  He led his partner firmly to the drinks table and poured him a beer, talking all the while, and, like Howard, giving off an almost visible glow of happiness and pride.

  'You heard I won the seat?'

  Gavin had not, but he did not feel equal to feigning surprise.

  'Yeah. Congratulations. '

  'How's Mary?' asked Miles expansively; he was a friend to the whole town tonight, because it had elected him. 'She doing OK?'

  'Yeah, I think - '

  'I heard she might be going to Liverpool. Might be for the best. '

  'What?' said Gavin sharply.

  'Maureen was saying this morning; apparently, Mary's sister's trying to persuade Mary to go home with the kids. She's still got a lot of family in Liver - '

  'This is her home. '

  'I think it was Barry who liked Pagford. I'm not sure Mary will want to stay without him. '

  Gaia was watching Gavin through a chink in the kitchen door. She was clutching a paper cup containing several fingers of the vodka that Andrew had stolen for her.

  'He's such a bastard,' she said. 'We'd still be in Hackney if he hadn't led Mum on. She's so bloody stupid. I could have told her he wasn't that interested. He never took her out. He couldn't wait to leave after they'd shagged. '

  Andrew, who was piling additional sandwiches on an almost empty platter behind her, could hardly believe that she was using words like shagged. The chimeric Gaia who filled his fantasies was a sexually inventive and adventurous virgin. He did not know what the real Gaia had done, or not done, with Marco de Luca. Her judgement on her mother made it sound as if she knew how men behaved after sex, if they were interested . . .

  'Drink something,' she told Andrew as he approached the door with the platter, and she held up her own polystyrene cup to his lips, and he drank some of her vodka. Giggling a little, she backed away to let him out and called after him: 'Make Sooks come in here and get some!'

  The hall was crowded and noisy. Andrew put the pile of fresh sandwiches on the table, but interest in the food seemed to have waned; Sukhvinder was struggling to keep up with demand at the drinks table, and many people had started pouring their own.

  'Gaia wants you in the kitchen,' Andrew told Sukhvinder, and he took over from her. There was no point acting like a bartender; instead, he filled as many glasses as he could find, and left them on the table for people to help themselves.

  'Hi, Peanut!' said Lexie Mollison. 'Can I have some champagne?'

  They had been at St Thomas's together, but he had not seen her for a long time. Her accent had changed since she had been at St Anne's. He hated being called Peanut.

  'It's there in front of you,' he said, pointing.

  'Lexie, you're not drinking,' snapped Samantha, appearing out of the crowd. 'Absolutely not. '

  'Grandad said - '

  'I don't care. '

  'Everyone else - '

  'I said no!'

  Lexie stomped away. Andrew, glad to see her go, smiled at Samantha, and was surprised when she beamed at him.

  'Do you talk back to your parents?'

  'Yeah,' he said, and she laughed. Her breasts really were enormous.

  'Ladies and gentlemen!' boomed a voice through the microphone, and everyone stopped talking to listen to Howard. 'Wanted to say a few words . . . most of you probably know by now that my son Miles has just been elected to the Parish Council!'

  There was a smattering of applause and Miles raised his drink high above his head to acknowledge it. Andrew was startled to hear Samantha say quite clearly under her breath, 'Hoo-fucking-ray. '

  Nobody was coming for drinks now. Andrew slipped back into the kitchen. Gaia and Sukhvinder were alone in there, drinking and laughing, and when they saw Andrew they both shouted, 'Andy!'

  He laughed too.

  'Are you both pissed?'

  'Yes,' said Gaia, and 'no,' said Sukhvinder. 'She is, though. '

  'I don't care,' said Gaia. 'Mollison can sack me if he wants. No point saving up for a ticket to Hackney any more. '

  'He won't sack you,' said Andrew, helping himself to some of the vodka. 'You're his favourite. '

  'Yeah,' said Gaia. 'Creepy old bastard. '

  And the three of them laughed again.

  Through the glass doors, amplified by the microphone, came Maureen's croaky voice.

  'Come on, then, Howard! Come on - a duet for your birthday! Go on - ladies and gentlemen - Howard's favourite song!'

  The teenagers gazed at each other in tantalized horror. Gaia tripped forward, giggling, and pushed the door open.

  The first few bars of 'The Green, Green Grass of Home' blared out, and then, in Howard's bass and Maureen's gravelly alto:

  The old home town looks the same,

  As I step down from the train . . .

  Gavin was the only one who heard the giggles and snorts, but when he turned around all he saw were the double doors to the kitchen, swinging a little on their hinges.

  Miles had left to chat with Aubrey and Julia Fawley, who had arrived late, wreathed in polite smiles. Gavin was in the grip of a familiar mixture of dread and anxiety. His brief sunlit haze of freedom and happiness had been overcast by the twin threats of Gaia blabbing what he had said to her mother, and of Mary leaving Pagford for ever. What was he going to do?

  Down the lane I walk, with my sweet Mary,

  Hair of gold and lips like cherries . . .

  'Kay not here?'

  Samantha had arrived, leaning against the table beside him, smirking.

  'You already asked me that,' said Gavin. 'No. '

  'Everything OK with you two?'

  'Is that really any of your business?'

  It slipped out of him before he could stop it; he was sick of her constant probing and jeering. For once, it was just the two of them; Miles was still busy with the F

  She over-acted being taken aback. Her eyes were bloodshot and her speech was deliberate; for the first time, Gavin felt more dislike than intimidation.

  'I'm sorry. I was only - '

  'Asking. Yeah,' he said, as Howard and Maureen swayed, arm in arm.

  'I'd like to see you settled down. You and Kay seemed good together. '

  'Yeah, well, I like my freedom,' said Gavin. 'I don't know many happily married couples. '

  Samantha had drunk too much to feel the full force of the dig, but she had the impression that one had been made.

  'Marriages are always a mystery to outsiders,' she said carefully. 'Nobody can ever really know except the two people involved. So you shouldn't judge, Gavin. '

  'Thanks for the insight,' he said, and irritated past endurance he set down his empty beer can and headed towards the cloakroom.

  Samantha watched him leave, sure that she had had the best of the encounter, and turned her attention to her mother-in-law, whom she could see through a gap in the crowd, watching Howard and Maureen sing. Samantha relished Shirley's anger, which was expressed in the tightest, coldest smile she had worn all evening. Howard and Maureen had performed together many a time over the years; Howard loved to sing, and Maureen had once performed backing vocals for a local skiffle band. When the song finished, Shirley clapped her hands together once; she might have been summoning a flunkey, and Samantha laughed out loud and moved along to the bar end of the table, which she was disappointed to find unmanned by the boy in the bow tie.

  Andrew, Gaia and Sukhvinder were still convulsed in the kitchen. They laughed because of Howard and Maureen's duet, and because they had finished two-thirds of the vodka, but mostly they laughed because they laughed, feeding off each other until they could barely stand.

  The little window over the sink, propped ajar so that the kitchen did not become too steamy, rattled and clattered, and Fats' head appeared through it.

  'Evening,' he said. Evidently he had climbed onto something outside, because, with a noise of scraping and a heavy object falling over, more and more of him emerged through the window until he landed heavily on the draining board, knocking several glasses to the ground, where they shattered.

  Sukhvinder walked straight out of the kitchen. Andrew knew immediately that he did not want Fats there. Only Gaia seemed unperturbed. Still giggling, she said, 'There's a door, you know. '

  'No shit?' said Fats. 'Where's the drink?'

  'This is ours,' said Gaia, cradling the vodka in her arms. 'Andy nicked it. You'll have to get your own. '

  'Not a problem,' said Fats coolly, and he walked through the doors into the hall.

  'Need the loo . . . ' mumbled Gaia, and she stowed the vodka bottle back under the sink, and left the kitchen too.

  Andrew followed. Sukhvinder had returned to the bar area, Gaia was disappearing into the bathroom, and Fats was leaning against the trestle table with a beer in one hand and a sandwich in the other.

  'Didn't think you'd want to come to this,' said Andrew.

  'I was invited, mate,' said Fats. 'It was on the invitation. Whole Wall family. '

  'Does Cubby know you're here?'

  'Dunno,' said Fats. 'He's in hiding. Didn't get ol' Barry's seat after all. The whole social fabric'll collapse now Cubby's not holding it together. Fucking hell, that's horrible,' he added, spitting out a mouthful of sandwich. 'Wanna fag?'

  The hall was so noisy, and the guests so raucously drunk, that nobody seemed to care where Andrew went any more. When they got outside, they found Patricia Mollison, alone beside her sports car, looking up at the clear starry sky, smoking.

  'You can have one of these,' she said, offering her packet, 'if you want. '

  After she had lit their cigarettes, she stood at her ease with one hand balled deep in her pocket. There was something about her that Andrew found intimidating; he could not even bring himself to glance at Fats, to gauge his reaction.

  'I'm Pat,' she told them, after a little while. 'Howard and Shirley's daughter. '

  'Hi,' said Andrew. ''M Andrew. '

  'Stuart,' said Fats.

  She did not seem to need to prolong conversation. Andrew felt it as a kind of compliment and tried to emulate her indifference. The silence was broken by footsteps and the sound of muffled girls' voices.

  Gaia was dragging Sukhvinder outside by the hand. She was laughing, and Andrew could tell that the full effect of the vodka was still intensifying inside her.

  'You,' said Gaia, to Fats, 'are really horrible to Sukhvinder. '

  'Stop it,' said Sukhvinder, tugging against Gaia's hand. 'I'm serious - let me - '

  'He is!' said Gaia breathlessly. 'You are! Do you put stuff on her Facebook?'

  'Stop it!' shouted Sukhvinder. She wrenched herself free and plunged back inside the party.

  'You are horrible to her,' said Gaia, grabbing onto the railings for support. 'Calling her a lesbian and stuff . . . '

  'Nothing wrong with being a lesbian,' said Patricia, her eyes narrowed through the smoke she was inhaling. 'But then, I would say that. '

  Andrew saw Fats look at Pat sideways.

  'I never said there was anything wrong with it. It's only jokes,' he said.

  Gaia slid down the rails to sit on the chilly pavement, her head in her arms.

  'You all right?' Andrew asked. If Fats had not been there, he would have sat down too.

  'Pissed,' she muttered.

  'Might do better to stick your fingers down your throat,' suggested Patricia, looking down at her dispassionately.

  'Nice car,' Fats said, eyeing the BMW.

  'Yeah,' said Patricia. 'New. I make double what my brother makes,' she said, 'but Miles is the Christ Child. Miles the Messiah . . . Parish Councillor Mollison the Second . . . of Pagford. Do you like Pagford?' she asked Fats, while Andrew watched Gaia breathing deeply, her head between her knees.

  'No,' said Fats. 'It's a shithole. '

  'Yeah, well . . . I couldn't wait to leave, personally. Did you know Barry Fairbrother?'

  'A bit,' said Fats.

  Something in his voice made Andrew worried.

  'He was my reading mentor at St Thomas's,' said Patricia, with her eyes still on the end of the street. 'Lovely bloke. I would have come back for the funeral, but Melly and I were in Zermatt. What's all this stuff my mother's been gloating about . . . this Barry's Ghost stuff?'

  'Someone putting stuff on the Parish Council website,' said Andrew hastily, afraid of what Fats might say, if he let him. 'Rumours and stuff. '

  'Yeah, my mother would love that,' said Patricia.

  'Wonder what the Ghost'll say next?' Fats asked, with a sidelong glance at Andrew.

  'Probably stop now the election's over,' muttered Andrew.

  'Oh, I dunno,' said Fats. 'If there's stuff old Barry's Ghost is still pissed off about . . . '

  He knew that he was making Andrew anxious and he was glad of it. Andrew was spending all his time at his poxy job these days, and he would soon be moving. Fats did not owe Andrew anything. True authenticity could not exist alongside guilt and obligation.

  'You all right down there?' Patricia asked Gaia, who nodded, with her face still hidden. 'What was it, the drink or the duet that made you feel sick?'

  Andrew laughed a little bit, out of politeness and because he wanted to keep the subject away from the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother.

  'Turned my stomach too,' said Patricia. 'Old Maureen and my father singing along together. Arm in arm. ' Patricia took a final fierce drag on her cigarette and threw the end down, grinding it beneath her heel. 'I walked in on her blowing him when I was twelve,' she said. 'And he gave me a fiver not to tell my mother. '

  Andrew and Fats stood transfixed, scared even to look at each other. Patricia wiped her face on the back of her hand: she was crying.

  'Shouldn't have bloody come,' she said. 'Knew I shouldn't. '

She got into the BMW, and the two boys watched, stunned, as she turned on the engine, reversed out of her parking space and drove away into the night.

  'Fuck me,' said Fats.

  'I think I might be sick,' whispered Gaia.

  'Mr Mollison wants you back inside - for the drinks. '

  Her message delivered, Sukhvinder darted away again.

  'I can't,' whispered Gaia.

  Andrew left her there. The din in the hall hit him as he opened the inner doors. The disco was in full swing. He had to move aside to allow Aubrey and Julia Fawley room to leave. Both, with their backs to the party, looked grimly pleased to be going.

  Samantha Mollison was not dancing, but was leaning up against the trestle table where, so recently, there had been rows and rows of drinks. While Sukhvinder rushed around collecting glasses, Andrew unpacked the last box of clean ones, set them out and filled them.

  'Your bow tie's crooked,' Samantha told him, and she leaned across the table and straightened it for him. Embarrassed, he ducked into the kitchen as soon as she let go. Between each load of glasses he put in the dishwasher, Andrew took another swig of the vodka he had stolen. He wanted to be drunk like Gaia; he wanted to return to that moment when they had been laughing uncontrollably together, before Fats had appeared.

  After ten minutes, he checked the drinks table again; Samantha was still propped up against it, glassy-eyed, and there were plenty of fresh-poured drinks left for her to enjoy. Howard was bobbing in the middle of the dance floor, sweat pouring down his face, roaring with laughter at something Maureen had said to him. Andrew wound his way through the crowd and back outside.

  He could not see where she was at first: then he spotted them. Gaia and Fats were locked together ten yards away from the door, leaning up against the railings, bodies pressed tight against each other, tongues working in each other's mouths.

  'Look, I'm sorry, but I can't do it all,' said Sukhvinder desperately from behind him. Then she spotted Fats and Gaia and let out something between a yelp and a sob. Andrew walked back into the hall with her, completely numb. In the kitchen, he poured the remainder of the vodka into a glass and downed it in one. Mechanically he filled the sink and set to washing out the glasses that could not fit in the dishwasher.

  The alcohol was not like dope. It made him feel empty, but also keen to hit someone: Fats, for instance.

  After a while, he realized that the plastic clock on the kitchen wall had leapt from midnight to one and that people were leaving.

  He was supposed to find coats. He tried for a while, but then lurched off to the kitchen again, leaving Sukhvinder in charge.

  Samantha was leaning up against the fridge, on her own, with a glass in her hand. Andrew's vision was strangely jerky, like a series of stills. Gaia had not come back. She was doubtless long gone with Fats. Samantha was talking to him. She was drunk too. He was not embarrassed by her any more. He suspected that he might be sick quite soon.

  ' . . . hate bloody Pagford . . . ' said Samantha, and, 'but you're young enough to get out. '

  'Yeah,' he said, unable to feel his lips. 'An' I will. 'Nigh will. '

  She pushed his hair off his forehead and called him sweet. The image of Gaia with her tongue in Fats' mouth threatened to obliterate everything. He could smell Samantha's perfume, coming in waves from her hot skin.

  'That band's shit,' he said, pointing at her chest, but he did not think she heard him.

  Her mouth was chapped and warm, and her breasts were huge, pressed against his chest; her back was as broad as his -

  'What the fuck?'

  Andrew was slumped against the draining board and Samantha was being dragged out of the kitchen by a big man with short greying hair. Andrew had a dim idea that something bad had happened, but the strange flickering quality of reality was becoming more and more pronounced, until the only thing to do was to stagger across the room to the bin and throw up again and again and again . . .

  'Sorry, you can't come in!' he heard Sukhvinder tell someone. 'Stuff piled up against the door!'

  He tied the bin bag tightly on his own vomit. Sukhvinder helped him clear the kitchen. He needed to throw up twice more, but both times managed to get to the bathroom.

  It was nearly two o'clock by the time Howard, sweaty but smiling, thanked them and said goodnight.

  'Very good work,' he said. 'See you tomorrow, then. Very good . . . where's Miss Bawden, by the way?'

  Andrew left Sukhvinder to come up with a lie. Out in the street, he unchained Simon's bicycle and wheeled it away into the darkness.

  The long cold walk back to Hilltop House cleared his head, but assuaged neither his bitterness nor his misery.

  Had he ever told Fats that he fancied Gaia? Maybe not, but Fats knew. He knew that Fats knew . . . were they, perhaps, shagging right now?

  I'm moving, anyway, Andrew thought, bent over and shivering as he pushed the bicycle up the hill. So fuck them . . .

  Then he thought: I'd better be moving . . . Had he just snogged Lexie Mollison's mother? Had her husband walked in on them? Had that really happened?

  He was scared of Miles, but he also wanted to tell Fats about it, to see his face . . .

  When he let himself into the house, exhausted, Simon's voice came out of the darkness from the kitchen.

  'Have you put my bike in the garage?'

  He was sitting at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of cereal. It was nearly half-past two in the morning.

  'Couldn't sleep,' said Simon.

  For once, he was not angry. Ruth was not there, so he did not have to prove himself bigger or smarter than his sons. He seemed weary and small.

  'Think we're gonna have to move to Reading, Pizza Face,' said Simon. It was almost a term of endearment.

  Shivering slightly, feeling old and shell-shocked, and immensely guilty, Andrew wanted to give his father something to make up for what he had done. It was time to redress balances and claim Simon as an ally. They were a family. They had to move together. Perhaps it could be better, somewhere else.

  'I've got something for you,' he said. 'Come through here. Found out how to do it at school . . . '

  And he led the way to the computer.