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The Casual Vacancy, Page 9

J. K. Rowling

Part Two Chapter II



  Edward Collins & Co. , the Pagford solicitors, occupied the upper floor of a terraced brick house, with an optician's on the ground floor. Edward Collins was deceased and his firm comprised two men: Gavin Hughes who was the salaried partner, with one window in his office, and Miles Mollison, who was the equity partner, with two windows. They shared a secretary who was twenty-eight, single, plain but with a good figure. Shona laughed too long at all Miles' jokes, and treated Gavin with a patronage that was almost offensive.

  'Mary's called. There's a bit of a glitch with Barry's life insurance. She wants me to help her sort it. '

  'Right, well, you can handle that, can't you? I'll be back at two, anyway. '

  Miles slipped on his overcoat, jogged down the steep stairs and walked briskly up the rain-swept little street that led to the Square. A momentary break in the clouds caused sunlight to flood the glistening war memorial and the hanging baskets. Miles experienced a rush of atavistic pride as he hurried across the Square towards Mollison and Lowe, that Pagford institution, that classiest of emporia; a pride that familiarity had never blighted, but rather deepened and ripened.

  The bell tinkled at the door as Miles pushed it open. There was something of a lunchtime rush on: a queue of eight waited at the counter and Howard, in his mercantile regalia, fisherman's flies glinting in his deerstalker, was in full tongue.

  '. . . and a quarter of black olives, Rosemary, to you. Nothing else, now? Nothing else for Rosemary . . . that'll be eight pounds, sixty-two pence; we'll call it eight, my love, in light of our long and fruitful association . . . '

  Giggles and gratitude; the rattle and crash of the till.

  'And here's my lawyer, come to check up on me,' boomed Howard, winking and chuckling over the heads of the queue at Miles. 'If you'll wait for me in the back, sir, I'll try not to say anything incriminating to Mrs Howson . . . '

  Miles smiled at the middle-aged ladies, who beamed back. Tall, with thick, close-cropped greying hair, big round blue eyes, his paunch disguised by his dark overcoat, Miles was a reasonably attractive addition to the hand-baked biscuits and local cheeses. He navigated his way carefully between the little tables piled high with delicacies and paused at the big arch hewn between delicatessen and the old shoe shop, which was denuded of its protective plastic curtain for the first time. Maureen (Miles recognized the handwriting) had put up a sign on a sandwich board in the middle of the arch: No Entry. Coming Soon . . . The Copper Kettle. Miles peered through into the clean, spare space that would soon be Pagford's newest and best cafe; it was plastered and painted, with freshly varnished black boards underfoot.

  He sidled around the corner of the counter and edged past Maureen, who was operating the meat slicer, affording her the opportunity for a gruff and ribald laugh, then ducked through the door that led into the dingy little back room. Here was a Formica table, on which Maureen's Daily Mail lay folded; Howard and Maureen's coats hanging on hooks, and a door leading to the lavatory, which exuded a scent of artificial lavender. Miles hung up his overcoat and drew up an old chair to the table.

  Howard appeared a minute or two later, bearing two heaped plates of delicatessen fare.

  'Definitely decided on the "Copper Kettle" then?' asked Miles.

  'Well, Mo likes it,' said Howard, setting down a plate in front of his son.

  He lumbered out, returned with two bottles of ale, and closed the door with his foot so that the room was enveloped in a windowless gloom relieved only by the dim pendant light. Howard sat down with a deep grunt. He had been conspiratorial on the telephone mid-morning, and kept Miles waiting a few moments longer while he flipped off the lid of one bottle.

  'Wall's sent his forms in,' he said at last, handing over the beer.

  'Ah,' said Miles.

  'I'm going to set a deadline. Two weeks from today for everyone to declare. '

  'Fair enough,' said Miles.

  'Mum reckons this Price bloke is still interested. Have you asked Sam if she knows who he is yet?'

  'No,' said Miles.

  Howard scratched an underfold of the belly that rested close to his knees as he sat on the creaking chair.

  'Everything all right with you and Sam?'

  Miles admired, as always, his father's almost psychic intuition.

  'Not great. '

  He would not have confessed it to his mother, because he tried not to fuel the constant cold war between Shirley and Samantha, in which he was both hostage and prize.

  'She doesn't like the idea of me standing,' Miles elaborated. Howard raised his fair eyebrows, his jowls wobbling as he chewed. 'I don't bloody know what's got into her. She's on one of her anti-Pagford kicks. '

  Howard took his time swallowing. He dabbed at his mouth with a paper napkin and burped.

  'She'll come round quickly enough once you're in,' he said. 'The social side of it. Plenty for the wives. Functions at Sweetlove House. She'll be in her element. ' He took another swig of ale and scratched his belly again.

  'I can't picture this Price,' said Miles, returning to the essential point, 'but I've got a feeling he had a kid in Lexie's class at St Thomas's. '

  'Fields-born, though, that's the thing,' said Howard. 'Fields-born, which could work to our advantage. Split the pro-Fields vote between him and Wall. '

  'Yeah,' said Miles. 'Makes sense. '

  'I haven't heard of anyone else. It's possible, once details hit the website, someone else'll come forward. But I'm confident about our chances. I'm confident. Aubrey called,' Howard added. There was always a touch of additional portentousness in Howard's tone when he used Aubrey Fawley's Christian name. 'Right behind you, goes without saying. He's back this evening. He's been in town. '

  Usually, when a Pagfordian said 'in town', they meant 'in Yarvil'. Howard and Shirley used the phrase, in imitation of Aubrey Fawley, to mean 'in London'.

  'He mentioned something about us all getting together for a chat. Maybe tomorrow. Might even invite us over to the house. Sam'd like that. '

  Miles had just taken a large bite of soda bread and liver pate, but he conveyed his agreement with an emphatic nod. He liked the idea that Aubrey Fawley was 'right behind' him. Samantha might jeer at his parents' thraldom to the Fawleys, but Miles noticed that on those rare occasions when Samantha came face to face with either Aubrey or Julia, her accent changed subtly and her demeanour became markedly more demure.

  'Something else,' said Howard, scratching his belly again. 'Got an email from the Yarvil and District Gazette this morning. Asking for my views on the Fields. As chair of the Parish Council. '

  'You're kidding? I thought Fairbrother had stitched that one up - '

  'Backfired, didn't it?' said Howard, with immense satisfaction. 'They're going to run his article, and they want someone to argue against the following week. Give them the other side of the story. I'd appreciate a hand. Lawyer's turn of phrase, and all that. '

  'No problem,' said Miles. 'We could talk about that bloody addiction clinic. That'd make the point. '

  'Yes - very good idea - excellent. '

  In his enthusiasm, he had swallowed too much at once and Miles had to bang him on the back until his coughing had subsided. At last, dabbing his watering eyes with a napkin, Howard said breathlessly, 'Aubrey's recommending the District cuts funding from their end, and I'm going to put it to our lot that it's time to terminate the lease on the building. It wouldn't hurt to make the case in the press. How much time and money's gone into that bloody place with nothing to show for it. I've got the figures. ' Howard burped sonorously. 'Bloody disgraceful. Pardon me. '