The casual vacancy, p.12
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       The Casual Vacancy, p.12

           J. K. Rowling
Part Two Chapter V



  Alison Jenkins, the journalist from the Yarvil and District Gazette, had at last established which of the many Weedon households in Yarvil housed Krystal. It had been difficult: nobody was registered to vote at the address and no landline number was listed for the property. Alison visited Foley Road in person on Sunday, but Krystal was out, and Terri, suspicious and antagonistic, refused to say when she would be back or confirm that she lived there.

  Krystal arrived home a mere twenty minutes after the journalist had departed in her car, and she and her mother had another row.

  'Why din't ya tell her to wait? She was gonna interview me abou' the Fields an' stuff!'

  'Interview you? Fuck off. Wha' the fuck for?'

  The argument escalated and Krystal walked out again, off to Nikki's, with Terri's mobile in her tracksuit bottoms. She frequently made off with this phone; many rows were triggered by her mother demanding it back and Krystal pretending that she didn't know where it was. Dimly, Krystal hoped that the journalist might know the number somehow and call her directly.

  She was in a crowded, jangling cafe in the shopping centre, telling Nikki and Leanne all about the journalist, when the mobile rang.

  ''Oo? Are you the journalist, like?'

  '. . . o's 'at . . . 'erri?'

  'It's Krystal. 'Oo's this?'

  '. . . 'm your . . . 'nt . . . other . . . 'ister. '

  ''Oo?' shouted Krystal. One finger in the ear not pressed against the phone, she wove her way between the densely packed tables to reach a quieter place.

  'Danielle,' said the woman, loud and clear on the other end of the telephone. 'I'm yer mum's sister. '

  'Oh, yeah,' said Krystal, disappointed.

  Fuckin' snobby bitch, Terri always said when Danielle's name came up. Krystal was not sure that she had ever met Danielle.

  'It's abou' your Great Gran. '


  'Nana Cath,' said Danielle impatiently. Krystal reached the balcony overlooking the shopping centre forecourt; reception was strong here; she stopped.

  'Wha's wrong with 'er?' said Krystal. It felt as though her stomach was flipping over, the way it had done as a little girl, turning somersaults on a railing like the one in front of her. Thirty feet below, the crowds surged, carrying plastic bags, pushing buggies and dragging toddlers.

  'She's in South West General. She's been there a week. She's had a stroke. '

  'She's bin there a week?' said Krystal, her stomach still swooping. 'Nobody told us. '

  'Yeah, well, she can't speak prop'ly, but she's said your name twice. '

  'Mine?' asked Krystal, clutching the mobile tightly.

  'Yeah. I think she'd like to see yeh. It's serious. They're sayin' she migh' not recover. '

  'Wha' ward is it?' asked Krystal, her mind buzzing.

  'Twelve. High-dependency. Visiting hours are twelve till four, six till eight. All righ'?'

  'Is it - ?'

  'I gotta go. I only wanted to let you know, in case you want to see her. 'Bye. '

  The line went dead. Krystal lowered the mobile from her ear, staring at the screen. She pressed a button repeatedly with her thumb, until she saw the word 'blocked'. Her aunt had withheld her number.

  Krystal walked back to Nikki and Leanne. They knew at once that something was wrong.

  'Go an' see 'er,' said Nikki, checking the time on her own mobile. 'Yeh'll ge' there fer two. Ge' the bus. '

  'Yeah,' said Krystal blankly.

  She thought of fetching her mother, of taking her and Robbie to go and see Nana Cath too, but there had been a huge row a year before, and her mother and Nana Cath had had no contact since. Krystal was sure that Terri would take an immense amount of persuading to go to the hospital, and was not sure that Nana Cath would be happy to see her.

  It's serious. They're saying she might not recover.

  ''Ave yeh gor enough cash?' said Leanne, rummaging in her pockets as the three of them walked up the road towards the bus stop.

  'Yeah,' said Krystal, checking. 'It's on'y a quid up the hospital, innit?'

  They had time to share a cigarette before the number twenty-seven arrived. Nikki and Leanne waved her off as though she were going somewhere nice. At the very last moment, Krystal felt scared and wanted to shout 'Come with me!' But then the bus pulled away from the kerb, and Nikki and Leanne were already turning away, gossiping.

  The seat was prickly, covered in some old smelly fabric. The bus trundled onto the road that ran by the precinct and turned right into one of the main thoroughfares that led through all the big-name shops.

  Fear fluttered inside Krystal's belly like a foetus. She had known that Nana Cath was getting older and frailer, but somehow, vaguely, she had expected her to regenerate, to return to the heyday that had seemed to last so long; for her hair to turn black again, her spine to straighten and her memory to sharpen like her caustic tongue. She had never thought about Nana Cath dying, always associating her with toughness and invulnerability. If she had considered them at all, Krystal would have thought of the deformity to Nana Cath's chest, and the innumerable wrinkles criss-crossing her face, as honourable scars sustained during her successful battle to survive. Nobody close to Krystal had ever died of old age.

  (Death came to the young in her mother's circle, sometimes even before their faces and bodies had become emaciated and ravaged. The body that Krystal had found in the bathroom when she was six had been of a handsome young man, as white and lovely as a statue, or that was how she remembered him. But sometimes she found that memory confusing and doubted it. It was hard to know what to believe. She had often heard things as a child that adults later contradicted and denied. She could have sworn that Terri had said, 'It was yer dad. ' But then, much later, she had said, 'Don' be so silly. Yer dad's not dead, 'e's in Bristol, innee?' So Krystal had had to try and reattach herself to the idea of Banger, which was what everybody called the man they said was her father.

  But always, in the background, there had been Nana Cath. She had escaped foster care because of Nana Cath, ready and waiting in Pagford, a strong if uncomfortable safety net. Swearing and furious, she had swooped, equally aggressive to Terri and to the social workers, and taken her equally angry great-granddaughter home.

  Krystal did not know whether she had loved or hated that little house in Hope Street. It was dingy and it smelt of bleach; it gave you a hemmed-in feeling. At the same time, it was safe, entirely safe. Nana Cath would only let approved individuals in through the door. There were old-fashioned bath cubes in a glass jar on the end of the bath. )

  What if there were other people at Nana Cath's bedside, when she got there? She would not recognize half her own family, and the idea that she might come across strangers tied to her by blood scared her. Terri had several half-sisters, products of her father's multiple liaisons, whom even Terri had never met; but Nana Cath tried to keep up with them all, doggedly maintaining contact with the large disconnected family her sons had produced. Occasionally, over the years, relatives Krystal did not recognize had turned up at Nana Cath's while she was there. Krystal thought that they eyed her askance and said things about her under their voices to Nana Cath; she pretended not to notice and waited for them to leave, so that she could have Nana Cath to herself again. She especially disliked the idea that there were any other children in Nana Cath's life.

  (''Oo are they?' Krystal had asked Nana Cath when she was nine, pointing jealously at a framed photograph of two boys in Paxton High uniforms on Nana Cath's sideboard.

  'Them's two o' my great-grandsons,' said Nana Cath. 'Tha's Dan and tha's Ricky. They're your cousins. '

  Krystal did not want them as cousins, and she did not want them on Nana Cath's sideboard.

  'An' who's tha'?' she demanded, pointing at a little girl with curly golden hair.

  'Tha's my Michael's little girl, Rhiannon, when she were five. Beau'iful
, weren't she? Bu' she wen' an' married some wog,' said Nana Cath.

  There had never been a photograph of Robbie on Nana Cath's sideboard.

  Yeh don't even know who the father is, do yeh, yer whore? I'm washin' my 'ands of yeh. I've 'ad enough, Terri, I've 'ad it: you can look after it yourself. )

  The bus trundled on through town, past all the Sunday afternoon shoppers. When Krystal had been small, Terri had taken her into the centre of Yarvil nearly every weekend, forcing her into a pushchair long past the age when Krystal needed it, because it was so much easier to hide nicked stuff with a pushchair, push it down under the kid's legs, hide it under the bags in the basket under the seat. Sometimes Terri would go on tandem shoplifting trips with the sister she spoke to, Cheryl, who was married to Shane Tully. Cheryl and Terri lived four streets away from each other in the Fields, and petrified the air with their language when they argued, which was frequently. Krystal never knew whether she and her Tully cousins were supposed to be on speaking terms or not, and no longer bothered keeping track, but she spoke to Dane whenever she ran across him. They had shagged, once, after splitting a bottle of cider out on the rec when they were fourteen. Neither of them had ever mentioned it afterwards. Krystal was hazy on whether or not it was legal, doing your cousin. Something Nikki had said had made her think that maybe it wasn't.

  The bus rolled up the road that led to the main entrance of South West General, and stopped twenty yards from an enormous long rectangular grey and glass building. There were patches of neat grass, a few small trees and a forest of signposts.

  Krystal followed two old ladies out of the bus and stood with her hands in her tracksuit pockets, looking around. She had already forgotten what kind of ward Danielle had told her Nana Cath was on; she recalled only the number twelve. She approached the nearest signpost with a casual air, squinting at it almost incidentally: it bore line upon line of impenetrable print, with words as long as Krystal's arm and arrows pointing left, right, diagonally. Krystal did not read well; being confronted with large quantities of words made her feel intimidated and aggressive. After several surreptitious glances at the arrows, she decided that there were no numbers there at all, so she followed the two old ladies towards the double glass doors at the front of the main building.

  The foyer was crowded and more confusing than the signposts. There was a bustling shop, which was separated from the main hall by floor to ceiling windows; there were rows of plastic chairs, which seemed to be full of people eating sandwiches; there was a packed cafe in the corner; and a kind of hexagonal counter in the middle of the floor, where women were answering enquiries as they checked their computers. Krystal headed there, her hands still in her pockets.

  'Where's ward twelve?' Krystal asked one of the women in a surly voice.

  'Third floor,' said the woman, matching her tone.

  Krystal did not want to ask anything else out of pride, so she turned and walked away, until she spotted lifts at the far end of the foyer and entered one going up.

  It took her nearly fifteen minutes to find the ward. Why didn't they put up numbers and arrows, not these stupid long words? But then, walking along a pale green corridor with her trainers squeaking on the linoleum floor, someone called her name.


  It was her aunt Cheryl, big and broad in a denim skirt and tight white vest, with banana-yellow black-rooted hair. She was tattooed from her knuckles to the tops of her thick arms, and wore multiple gold hoops like curtain rings in each ear. There was a can of Coke in her hand.

  'She ain' bothered, then?' said Cheryl. Her bare legs were planted firmly apart, like a sentry guard.


  'Terri. She din' wanna come?'

  'She don' know ye'. I on'y jus' 'eard. Danielle called an' tole me. '

  Cheryl ripped off the ring-pull and slurped Coke, her tiny eyes sunken in a wide, flat face that was mottled like corned beef, scrutinizing Krystal over the top of the can.

  'I tole Danielle ter call yeh when it 'appened. Three days she were lyin' in the 'ouse, and no one fuckin' found 'er. The state of 'er. Fuckin' 'ell. '

  Krystal did not ask Cheryl why she herself had not walked the short distance to Foley Road to tell Terri the news. Evidently the sisters had fallen out again. It was impossible to keep up.

  'Where is she?' asked Krystal.

  Cheryl led the way, her flip-flops making a slapping noise on the floor.

  'Hey,' she said, as they walked. 'I 'ad a call fr'm a journalist about you. '


  'She give me a number. '

  Krystal would have asked more questions, but they had entered a very quiet ward, and she was suddenly frightened. She did not like the smell.

  Nana Cath was almost unrecognizable. One side of her face was terribly twisted, as though the muscles had been pulled with a wire. Her mouth dragged to one side; even her eye seemed to droop. There were tubes taped to her, a needle in her arm. Lying down, the deformity in her chest was much more obvious. The sheet rose and fell in odd places, as if the grotesque head on its scrawny neck protruded from a barrel.

  When Krystal sat down beside her, Nana Cath made no movement. She simply gazed. One little hand trembled slightly.

  'She ain' talkin', bu' she said yer name, twice, las' nigh',' Cheryl told her, staring gloomily over the rim of her can.

  There was a tightness in Krystal's chest. She did not know whether it would hurt Nana Cath to hold her hand. She edged her own fingers to within a few inches of Nana Cath's, but let them rest on the bedspread.

  'Rhiannon's bin in,' said Cheryl. 'An' John an' Sue. Sue's tryin' ter get hold of Anne-Marie. '

  Krystal's spirits leapt.

  'Where is she?' she asked Cheryl.

  'Somewhere out Frenchay way. Y'know she's got a baby now?'

  'Yeah, I 'eard,' said Krystal. 'Wha' was it?'

  'Dunno,' said Cheryl, swigging Coke.

  Someone at school had told her: Hey, Krystal, your sister's up the duff! She had been excited by the news. She was going to be an auntie, even if she never saw the baby. All her life, she had been in love with the idea of Anne-Marie, who had been taken away before Krystal was born; spirited into another dimension, like a fairy-tale character, as beautiful and mysterious as the dead man in Terri's bathroom.

  Nana Cath's lips moved.

  'Wha'?' said Krystal, bending low, half scared, half elated.

  'D'yeh wan' somethin', Nana Cath?' asked Cheryl, so loudly that whispering guests at other beds stared over.

  Krystal could hear a wheezing, rattling noise, but Nana Cath seemed to be making a definite attempt to form a word. Cheryl was leaning over the other side, one hand gripping the metal bars at the head of the bed.

  '. . . Oh . . . mm,' said Nana Cath.

  'Wha'?' said Krystal and Cheryl together.

  The eyes had moved millimetres: rheumy, filmy eyes, looking at Krystal's smooth young face, her open mouth, as she leaned over her great-grandmother, puzzled, eager and fearful.

  '. . . owin . . . ' said the cracked old voice.

  'She dunno wha' she's sayin',' Cheryl shouted over her shoulder at the timid couple visiting at the next bed. 'Three days lef' on the fuckin' floor, 's'not surprisin', is it?'

  But tears had blurred Krystal's eyes. The ward with its high windows dissolved into white light and shadow; she seemed to see a flash of bright sunlight on dark green water, fragmented into brilliant shards by the splashing rise and fall of oars.

  'Yeah,' she whispered to Nana Cath. 'Yeah, I goes rowin', Nana. '

  But it was no longer true, because Mr Fairbrother was dead.