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The Casual Vacancy, Page 42

J. K. Rowling

Part Five Chapter IV



  A misty blue sky stretched like a dome over Pagford and the Fields. Dawn light shone upon the old stone war memorial in the Square, on the cracked concrete fa├žades of Foley Road, and turned the white walls of Hilltop House pale gold. As Ruth Price climbed into her car ready for another long shift at the hospital, she looked down at the River Orr, shining like a silver ribbon in the distance, and felt how completely unjust it was that somebody else would soon have her house and her view.

  A mile below, in Church Row, Samantha Mollison was still sound asleep in the spare bedroom. There was no lock on the door, but she had barricaded it with an armchair before collapsing, semi-dressed, onto the bed. The beginnings of a vicious headache disturbed her slumber, and the sliver of sunshine that had penetrated the gap in the curtains fell like a laser beam across the corner of one eye. She twitched a little, in the depths of her dry-mouthed, anxious half-sleep, and her dreams were guilty and strange.

  Downstairs, among the clean, bright surfaces of the kitchen, Miles sat bolt upright and alone with an untouched mug of tea in front of him, staring at the fridge, and stumbling again, in his mind's eye, upon his drunken wife locked in the embrace of a sixteen-year-old schoolboy.

  Howard Mollison was sleeping soundly and happily in his double bed. The patterned curtains dappled him with pink petals and protected him from a rude awakening, but his rattling wheezing snores had roused his wife. Shirley was eating toast and drinking coffee in the kitchen, wearing her glasses and her candlewick dressing gown. She visualized Maureen swaying arm in arm with her husband in the village hall and experienced a concentrated loathing that took the taste from every mouthful.

  In the Smithy, a few miles outside Pagford, Gavin Hughes soaped himself under a hot shower and wondered why he had never had the courage of other men, and how they managed to make the right choices among almost infinite alternatives. There was a yearning inside him for a life he had glimpsed but never tasted, yet he was afraid. Choice was dangerous: you had to forgo all other possibilities when you chose.

  Kay Bawden was lying awake and exhausted in bed in Hope Street, listening to the early morning quiet of Pagford and watching Gaia, who was asleep beside her in the double bed, pale and drained in the early daylight. There was a bucket next to Gaia on the floor, placed there by Kay, who had half carried her daughter from bathroom to bedroom in the early hours, after holding her hair out of the toilet for an hour.

  'Why did you make us come here?' Gaia had wailed, as she choked and retched over the bowl. 'Get off me. Get off. I fuck - I hate you. '

  Kay watched the sleeping face and recalled the beautiful little baby who had slept beside her, sixteen years ago. She remembered the tears that Gaia had shed when Kay had split up with Steve, her live-in partner of eight years. Steve had attended Gaia's parents' evenings and taught her to ride a bicycle. Kay remembered the fantasy she had nurtured (with hindsight, as silly as four-year-old Gaia's wish for a unicorn) that she would settle down with Gavin and give Gaia, at last, a permanent stepfather, and a beautiful house in the country. How desperate she had been for a storybook ending, and a life to which Gaia would always want to return; because her daughter's departure was hurtling towards Kay like a meteorite, and she foresaw the loss of Gaia as a calamity that would shatter her world.

  Kay reached out a hand beneath the duvet and held Gaia's. The feel of the warm flesh that she had accidentally brought into the world made Kay start to weep, quietly, but so violently that the mattress shook.

  And at the bottom of Church Row, Parminder Jawanda slipped a coat on over her nightdress and took her coffee into the back garden. Sitting in the chilly sunlight on a wooden bench, she saw that it was promising to be a beautiful day, but there seemed to be a blockage between her eyes and her heart. The heavy weight on her chest deadened everything.

  The news that Miles Mollison had won Barry's seat on the Parish Council had not been a surprise, but on seeing Shirley's neat little announcement on the website, she had known another flicker of that madness that had overtaken her at the last meeting: a desire to attack, superseded almost at once by stifling hopelessness.

  'I'm going to resign from the council,' she told Vikram. 'What's the point?'

  'But you like it,' he had said.

  She had liked it when Barry had been there too. It was easy to conjure him up this morning, when everything was quiet and still. A little, ginger-bearded man; she had been taller than him by half a head. She had never felt the slightest physical attraction towards him. What was love, after all? thought Parminder, as a gentle breeze ruffled the tall hedge of leyland cypresses that enclosed the Jawandas' big back lawn. Was it love when somebody filled a space in your life that yawned inside you, once they had gone?

  I did love laughing, thought Parminder. I really miss laughing.

  And it was the memory of laughter that, at last, made the tears flow from her eyes. They trickled down her nose and into her coffee, where they made little bullet holes, swiftly erased. She was crying because she never seemed to laugh any more, and also because the previous evening, while they had been listening to the jubilant distant thump of the disco in the church hall, Vikram had said, 'Why don't we visit Amritsar this summer?'

  The Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the religion to which he was indifferent. She had known at once what Vikram was doing. Time lay slack and empty on her hands as never before in her life. Neither of them knew what the GMC would decide to do with her, once it had considered her ethical breach towards Howard Mollison.

  'Mandeep says it's a big tourist trap,' she had replied, dismissing Amritsar at a stroke.

  Sukhvinder had crossed the lawn without Parminder noticing. She was dressed in jeans and a baggy sweatshirt. Parminder hastily wiped her face and squinted at Sukhvinder, who had her back to the sun.

  'I don't want to go to work today. '

  Parminder responded at once, in the same spirit of automatic contradiction that had made her turn down Amritsar. 'You've made a commitment, Sukhvinder. '

  'I don't feel well. '

  'You mean you're tired. You're the one who wanted this job. Now you fulfil your obligations. '

  'But - '

  'You're going to work,' snapped Parminder, and she might have been pronouncing sentence. 'You're not giving the Mollisons another reason to complain. '

  After Sukhvinder walked back to the house Parminder felt guilty. She almost called her daughter back, but instead she made a mental note that she must try and find time to sit down with her and talk to her without arguing.