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The Casual Vacancy, Page 8

J. K. Rowling

Part Two Chapter I


  Fair Comment

  7. 33 Fair comment on a matter of public interest is not actionable.

  Charles Arnold-Baker

  Local Council Administration,

  Seventh Edition


  It rained on Barry Fairbrother's grave. The ink blurred on the cards. Siobhan's chunky sunflower head defied the pelting drops, but Mary's lilies and freesias crumpled, then fell apart. The chrysanthemum oar darkened as it decayed. Rain swelled the river, made streams in the gutters and turned the steep roads into Pagford glossy and treacherous. The windows of the school bus were opaque with condensation; the hanging baskets in the Square became bedraggled, and Samantha Mollison, windscreen wipers on full tilt, suffered a minor collision in the car on the way home from work in the city.

  A copy of the Yarvil and District Gazette stuck out of Mrs Catherine Weedon's door in Hope Street for three days, until it became sodden and illegible. Finally, social worker Kay Bawden tugged it out of the letterbox, peered in through the rusty flap and spotted the old lady spread-eagled at the foot of the stairs. A policeman helped break down the front door, and Mrs Weedon was taken away in an ambulance to South West General.

  Still the rain fell, forcing the sign-painter who had been hired to rename the old shoe shop to postpone the job. It poured for days and into the nights, and the Square was full of hunchbacks in waterproofs, and umbrellas collided on the narrow pavements.

  Howard Mollison found the gentle patter against the dark window soothing. He sat in the study that had once been his daughter Patricia's bedroom, and contemplated the email that he had received from the local newspaper. They had decided to run Councillor Fairbrother's article arguing that the Fields ought to remain with Pagford, but in the interests of balance, they hoped that another councillor might make the case for reassignment in the following issue.

  Backfired on you, hasn't it, Fairbrother? thought Howard happily. There you were, thinking you'd have it all your own way . . .

  He closed the email and turned instead to the small pile of papers beside him. These were the letters that had come trickling in, requesting an election to fill Barry's vacant seat. The constitution stated that it required nine applications to enforce a public vote, and he had received ten. He read them over, while his wife's and his business partner's voices rose and fell in the kitchen, stripping bare between them the meaty scandal of old Mrs Weedon's collapse and belated discovery.

  '. . . don't walk out on your doctor for nothing, do you? Screaming at the top of her voice, Karen said - '

  ' - saying she'd been given the wrong drugs, yes, I know,' said Shirley, who considered that she had a monopoly on medical speculation, given that she was a hospital volunteer. 'They'll run tests up at the General, I expect. '

  'I'd be feeling very worried if I were Dr Jawanda. '

  'She's probably hoping the Weedons are too ignorant to sue, but that won't matter if the General finds out it was the wrong medication. '

  'She'll be struck off,' said Maureen with relish.

  'That's right,' said Shirley, 'and I'm afraid a lot of people will feel good riddance. Good riddance. '

  Methodically Howard sorted letters into piles. Miles' completed application forms he set aside on their own. The remaining communications were from fellow Parish Councillors. There were no surprises here; as soon as Parminder had emailed him to tell him that she knew of somebody who was interested in standing for Barry's seat, he had expected these six to rally round her, demanding an election. Together with Bends-Your-Ear herself, they were the ones he dubbed 'the Obstreperous Faction', whose leader had recently fallen. Onto this pile he placed the completed forms of Colin Wall, their chosen candidate.

  Into a third pile he placed four more letters, which were, likewise, from expected sources: professional complainers of Pagford, known to Howard as perennially dissatisfied and suspicious, all prolific correspondents to the Yarvil and District Gazette. Each had their own obsessive interest in some esoteric local issue, and considered themselves 'independent minded'; they would be the ones most likely to scream 'nepotism' if Miles had been co-opted; but they were among the most anti-Fields people in town.

  Howard took the last two letters in each hand, weighing them up. One of them was from a woman whom he had never met, who claimed (Howard took nothing for granted) to work at the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic (the fact that she styled herself 'Ms' inclined him to believe her). After some hesitation, he placed this on top of Cubby Wall's application forms.

  The last letter, unsigned and typed on a word processor, demanded an election in intemperate terms. It had an air of haste and carelessness and was littered with typos. The letter extolled the virtues of Barry Fairbrother and named Miles specifically as 'unfit to fill his sheos'. Howard wondered whether Miles had a disgruntled client out there who might prove to be an embarrassment. It was good to be forewarned of such potential hazards. However, Howard doubted whether the letter, being anonymous, counted as a vote for an election. He therefore fed it into the little desktop shredder that Shirley had given him for Christmas.