Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Casual Vacancy, Page 58

J. K. Rowling

Part Seven Chapter 1


  Relief of Poverty . . .

  13. 5 Gifts to benefit the poor . . . are charitable, and a gift for the poor is charitable even if it happens incidentally to benefit the rich . . .

  Charles Arnold-Baker

  Local Council Administration,

  Seventh Edition

  Nearly three weeks after the sirens had wailed through sleepy Pagford, on a sunny morning in April, Shirley Mollison stood alone in her bedroom, squinting at her reflection in the mirrored wardrobe. She was making final adjustments to her dress before her now-daily drive to South West General. The belt buckle slid up a hole tighter than it had done a fortnight ago, her silver hair was in need of a trim and her grimace against the sunshine blazing into the room could have been a simple expression of her mood.

  When Miles accompanied her to the hospital, she could let him do all the talking to Howard, which he did, keeping up a steady monologue of Pagford news. She felt so much better - both more visible and more protected - with tall Miles walking beside her down the chilly corridors. He chatted genially to the nurses, and handed her in and out of the car, and restored to her the sense of being a rare creature, worthy of care and protection. But Miles could not come every day, and to Shirley's profound irritation he kept deputizing Samantha to accompany her. This was not the same thing at all, even though Samantha was one of the few who managed to bring a smile to Howard's purple vacant face.

  Nobody seemed to realize how dreadful the silence was at home either. When the doctors had told the family that recuperation would take months, Shirley had hoped that Miles would ask her to move into the spare room of the big house in Church Row, or that he might stay over, from time to time, in the bungalow. But no: she had been left alone, quite alone, except for a painful three-day period when she had played hostess to Pat and Melly.

  I'd never have done it, she reassured herself, automatically, in the silent night, when she could not sleep. I never really meant to. I was just upset. I'd never have done it.

  She had buried Andrew's EpiPen in the soft earth beneath the bird table in the garden, like a tiny corpse. She did not like knowing it was there. Some dark evening soon, the night before refuse-collection day, she would dig it up again and slip it into a neighbour's bin.

  Howard had not mentioned the needle to her or to anyone. He had not asked her why she had run away when she saw him.

  Shirley found relief in long rattling streams of invective, directed at the people who had, in her stated opinion, caused the catastrophe that had fallen on her family. Parminder Jawanda was the first of these, naturally, for her callous refusal to attend Howard. Then there were the two teenagers who, through their vile irresponsibility, had diverted the ambulance that might have reached Howard sooner.

  The latter argument was perhaps a little weak, but it was the enjoyable fashion to denigrate Stuart Wall and Krystal Weedon, and Shirley found plenty of willing listeners in her immediate circle. What was more, it had transpired that the Wall boy had been the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother all along. He had confessed to his parents, and they had personally telephoned the victims of the boy's spite to apologize. The Ghost's identity had leaked swiftly into the wider community, and this, coupled with the knowledge that he had been jointly responsible for the drowning of a three-year-old child, made abuse of Stuart both a duty and a pleasure.

  Shirley was more vehement in her comments than anybody. There was a savagery in her denunciations, each of them a little exorcism of the kinship and admiration she had felt for the Ghost, and a repudiation of that awful last post which nobody else, as yet, had admitted to seeing. The Walls had not telephoned Shirley to apologize, but she was constantly primed, in case the boy should mention it to his parents, or in case anybody should bring it up, to deliver a final crushing blow to Stuart's reputation.

  'Oh yes, Howard and I know all about it,' she planned to say, with icy dignity, 'and it's my belief that the shock caused his heart attack. '

  She had actually practised saying this aloud in the kitchen.

  The question of whether Stuart Wall had really known something about her husband and Maureen was less urgent now, because Howard was patently incapable of shaming her in that way again, and perhaps never would be, and nobody seemed to be gossiping. And if the silence she offered Howard, when she was unavoidably alone with him, was tinged with a sense of grievance on both sides, she was able to face the prospect of his protracted incapacitation and absence from the house with more equanimity than she might have thought possible three weeks previously.

  The doorbell rang and Shirley hurried to open it. Maureen was there, hobbling on ill-advised high heels, garish in bright aquamarine.

  'Hello, dear, come in,' said Shirley. 'I'll get my bag. '

  'They're saying people got up a collection,' said Maureen, brimful of gossip that Shirley had somehow missed, in her endless back and forward trips to the hospital. 'Don't ask me who. Anyway, I wouldn't have thought the family would want it right by the river, would you?'

  (The dirty and foul-mouthed little boy, of whose existence few had been aware, and of whom nobody but his mother and sister had been especially fond, had undergone such a transformation in Pagford's collective mind by his drowning, that he was spoken of everywhere as a water baby, a cherub, a pure and gentle angel whom all would have embraced with love and compassion, if only they could have saved him.

  But the needle and the flame had had no transformative effect upon Krystal's reputation; on the contrary, they had fixed her permanently in the mind of Old Pagford as a soulless creature whose pursuit of what the elderly liked to call kicks had led to the death of an innocent child. )

  Shirley was pulling on her coat.

  'You realize, I actually saw them that day?' she said, her cheeks turning pink. 'The boy bawling by one clump of bushes, and Krystal Weedon and Stuart Wall in another - '

  'Did you? And were they really . . . ?' asked Maureen avidly.

  'Oh yes,' said Shirley. 'Broad daylight. Open air. And the boy was right by the river when I saw him. A couple of steps and he'd have been in. '

  Something in Maureen's expression stung her.

  'I was hurrying,' said Shirley with asperity, 'because Howard had said he was feeling poorly and I was worried sick. I didn't want to go out at all, but Miles and Samantha had sent Lexie over - I think, if you want my honest opinion, they'd had a row - and then Lexie wanted to visit the cafe - I was absolutely distracted, and all I could think was, I must get back to Howard . . . I didn't actually realize what I'd seen until much later . . . and the dreadful thing,' said Shirley, her colour higher than ever, and returning again to her favourite refrain, 'is that if Krystal Weedon hadn't let that child wander off while she was having her fun in the bushes, the ambulance would have reached Howard so much more quickly. Because, you know, with two of them coming . . . things got confu - '

  'That's right,' said Maureen, interrupting as they moved out towards the car, because she had heard all this before. 'You know, I can't think why they're having the service here in Pagford . . . '

  She longed to suggest that they drive past the church on the way to the hospital - she had a craving to see what the Weedon family looked like en masse, and to glimpse, perhaps, that degenerate junkie mother - but could think of no way to frame the request.

  'You know, there's one comfort, Shirley,' she said, as they set off for the bypass. 'The Fields are as good as gone. That must be a comfort to Howard. Even if he can't attend council for a while, he got that done. '

  Andrew Price was speeding down the steep hill from Hilltop House, with the sun hot on his back and the wind in his hair. His week-old shiner had turned yellow and green, and looked, if possible, even worse than it had when he had turned up at school with his eye almost closed. Andrew had told the teachers who enquired that he had fallen off his bike.

  It was now the Easter holidays, and Gaia had texted Andrew the prev
ious evening to ask whether he would be going to Krystal's funeral the next day. He had sent an immediate 'yes', and was now dressed, after much deliberation, in his cleanest jeans and a dark grey shirt, because he did not own a suit.

  He was not very clear why Gaia was going to the funeral, unless it was to be with Sukhvinder Jawanda, to whom she seemed to cling more fondly than ever, now that she was moving back to London with her mother.

  'Mum says she should never have come to Pagford,' Gaia had told Andrew and Sukhvinder happily, as the three of them sat on the low wall beside the newsagent's at lunchtime. 'She knows Gavin's a total twat. '

  She had given Andrew her mobile number and told him that they would go out together when she came to Reading to see her father, and even mentioned, casually, taking him to see some of her favourite places in London, if he visited. She was showering benefits around her in the manner of a demob-happy soldier, and these promises, made so lightly, gilded the prospect of Andrew's own move. He had greeted the news that his parents had had an offer on Hilltop House with at least as much excitement as pain.

  The sweeping turn into Church Row, usually made with an uplift of spirits, dampened them. He could see people moving around in the graveyard, and he wondered what this funeral was going to be like, and for the first time that morning thought of Krystal Weedon in more than the abstract.

  A memory, long buried in the deepest recesses of his mind, came back to him, of that time in the playground at St Thomas's, when Fats, in a spirit of disinterested investigation, had handed him a peanut hidden inside a marshmallow . . . he could still feel his burning throat closing inexorably. He remembered trying to yell, and his knees giving way, and the children all around him, watching with a strange, bloodless interest, and then Krystal Weedon's raucous scream.

  'Andiprice iz 'avin' a 'lurgycacshun!'

  She had run, on her stocky little legs, all the way to the staff room, and the headmaster had snatched Andrew up and sprinted with him to the nearby surgery, where Dr Crawford had administered adrenalin. She was the only one who had remembered the talk that their teacher had given the class, explaining Andrew's life-threatening condition; the only one to recognize his symptoms.

  Krystal ought to have been given a gold merit star, and perhaps a certificate at assembly as Pupil of the Week, but the very next day (Andrew remembered it as clearly as his own collapse) she had hit Lexie Mollison so hard in the mouth that she had knocked out two of Lexie's teeth.

  He wheeled Simon's bike carefully into the Walls' garage, then rang the doorbell with a reluctance that had never been there before. Tessa Wall answered, dressed in her best grey coat. Andrew was annoyed with her; it was down to her that he had a black eye.

  'Come in, Andy,' said Tessa, and her expression was tense. 'We'll just be a minute. '

  He waited in the hallway, where the coloured glass over the door cast its paintboxy glow on the floorboards. Tessa marched into the kitchen, and Andrew glimpsed Fats in his black suit, crumpled up in a kitchen chair like a crushed spider, with one arm over his head, as if he were fending off blows.

  Andrew turned his back. The two boys had had no communication since Andrew had led Tessa to the Cubby Hole. Fats had not been to school for a fortnight. Andrew had sent a couple of texts, but Fats had not replied. His Facebook page remained frozen as it had been on the day of Howard Mollison's party.

  A week ago, without warning, Tessa had telephoned the Prices, told them that Fats had admitted to having posted the messages under the name The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother, and offered her deepest apologies for the consequences they had suffered.

  'So how did he know I had that computer?' Simon had roared, advancing on Andrew. 'How did fucking Fats Wall know I did jobs after-hours at the printworks?'

  Andrew's only consolation was that if his father had known the truth, he might have ignored Ruth's protests and continued to pummel Andrew until he was unconscious.

  Why Fats had decided to pretend he had authored all the posts, Andrew did not know. Perhaps it was Fats' ego at work, his determination to be the mastermind, the most destructive, the baddest of them all. Perhaps he had thought he was doing something noble, taking the fall for both of them. Either way, Fats had caused much more trouble than he knew; he had never realized, thought Andrew, waiting in the hall, what it was like to live with a father like Simon Price, safe in his attic room, with his reasonable, civilized parents.

  Andrew could hear the adult Walls talking in quiet voices; they had not closed the kitchen door.

  'We need to leave now,' Tessa was saying. 'He's got a moral obligation and he's going. '

  'He's had enough punishment,' said Cubby's voice.

  'I'm not asking him to go as a - '

  'Aren't you?' said Cubby sharply. 'For God's sake, Tessa. D'you think they'll want him there? You go. Stu can stay here with me. '

  A minute later Tessa emerged from the kitchen, closing the door firmly behind her.

  'Stu isn't coming, Andy,' she said, and he could tell that she was furious about it. 'I'm sorry about that. '