The casual vacancy, p.16
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       The Casual Vacancy, p.16

           J. K. Rowling
 
Part Two Chapter IX

 

  IX

  'And where are you going?' asked Simon, planting himself squarely in the middle of the tiny hall.

  The front door was open, and the glass porch behind him, full of shoes and coats, was blinding in the bright Saturday morning sun, turning Simon into a silhouette. His shadow rippled up the stairs, just touching the one on which Andrew stood.

  'Into town with Fats. '

  'Homework all finished, is it?'

  'Yeah. '

  It was a lie; but Simon would not bother to check.

  'Ruth? Ruth!'

  She appeared at the kitchen door, wearing an apron, flushed, with her hands covered in flour.

  'What?'

  'Do we need anything from town?'

  'What? No, I don't think so. '

  'Taking my bike, are you?' demanded Simon of Andrew.

  'Yeah, I was going to - '

  'Leaving it at Fats' house?'

  'Yeah. '

  'What time do we want him back?' Simon asked, turning to Ruth again.

  'Oh, I don't know, Si,' said Ruth impatiently. The furthest she ever went in irritation with her husband was on occasions when Simon, though basically in a good mood, started laying down the law for the fun of it. Andrew and Fats often went into town together, on the vague understanding that Andrew would return before it became dark.

  'Five o'clock, then,' said Simon arbitrarily. 'Any later and you're grounded. '

  'Fine,' Andrew replied.

  He kept his right hand in his jacket pocket, clenched over a tightly folded wad of paper, intensely aware of it, like a ticking grenade. The fear of losing this piece of paper, on which was inscribed a line of meticulously written code, and a number of crossed-out, reworked and heavily edited sentences, had been plaguing him for a week. He had been keeping it on him at all times, and sleeping with it inside his pillowcase.

  Simon barely moved aside, so that Andrew had to edge past him into the porch, his fingers clamped over the paper. He was terrified that Simon would demand that he turn out his pockets, ostensibly looking for cigarettes.

  'Bye, then. '

  Simon did not answer. Andrew proceeded into the garage, where he took out the note, unfolded it and read it. He knew that he was being irrational, that mere proximity to Simon could not have magically switched the papers, but still he made sure. Satisfied that all was safe, he refolded it, tucked it deeper into his pocket, which fastened with a stud, then wheeled the racing bike out of the garage and down through the gate into the lane. He could tell that his father was watching him through the glass door of the porch, hoping, Andrew was sure, to see him fall off or mistreat the bicycle in some way.

  Pagford lay below Andrew, slightly hazy in the cool spring sun, the air fresh and tangy. Andrew sensed the point at which Simon's eyes could no longer follow him; it felt as though pressure had been removed from his back.

  Down the hill into Pagford he streaked, not touching the brakes; then he turned into Church Row. Approximately halfway along the street he slowed down and cycled decorously into the drive of the Walls' house, taking care to avoid Cubby's car.

  'Hello, Andy,' said Tessa, opening the front door to him.

  'Hi, Mrs Wall. '

  Andrew accepted the convention that Fats' parents were laughable. Tessa was plump and plain, her hairstyle was odd and her dress sense embarrassing, while Cubby was comically uptight; yet Andrew could not help but suspect that if the Walls had been his parents, he might have been tempted to like them. They were so civilized, so courteous. You never had the feeling, in their house, that the floor might suddenly give way and plunge you into chaos.

  Fats was sitting on the bottom stair, putting on his trainers. A packet of loose tobacco was clearly visible, peeking out of the breast pocket of his jacket.

  'Arf. '

  'Fats. '

  'D'you want to leave your father's bicycle in the garage, Andy?'

  'Yeah, thanks, Mrs Wall. '

  (She always, he reflected, said 'your father', never 'your dad'. Andrew knew that Tessa detested Simon; it was one of the things that made him pleased to overlook the horrible shapeless clothes she wore, and the unflattering blunt-cut fringe.

  Her antipathy dated from that horrific epoch-making occasion, years and years before, when a six-year-old Fats had come to spend Saturday afternoon at Hilltop House for the first time. Balancing precariously on top of a box in the garage, trying to retrieve a couple of old badminton racquets, the two boys had accidentally knocked down the contents of a rickety shelf.

  Andrew remembered the tin of creosote falling, smashing onto the roof of the car and bursting open, and the terror that had engulfed him, and his inability to communicate to his giggling friend what they had brought upon themselves.

  Simon had heard the crash. He ran out to the garage and advanced on them with his jaw jutting, making his low, moaning animal noise, before starting to roar threats of dire physical punishment, his fists clenched inches from their small, upturned faces.

  Fats had wet himself. A stream of urine had spattered down the inside of his shorts onto the garage floor. Ruth, who had heard the yelling from the kitchen, had run from the house to intervene: 'No, Si - Si, no - it was an accident. ' Fats was white and shaking; he wanted to go home straight away; he wanted his mum.

  Tessa had arrived, and Fats had run to her in his soaking shorts, sobbing. It was the only time in his life that Andrew had seen his father at a loss, backing down. Somehow Tessa had conveyed white-hot fury without raising her voice, without threatening, without hitting. She had written out a cheque and forced it into Simon's hand, while Ruth said, 'No, no, there's no need, there's no need. ' Simon had followed her to her car, trying to laugh it all off; but Tessa had given him a look of contempt while loading the still-sobbing Fats into the passenger seat, and slammed the driver's door in Simon's smiling face. Andrew had seen his parents' expressions: Tessa was taking away with her, down the hill into the town, something that usually remained hidden in the house on top of the hill. )

  Fats courted Simon these days. Whenever he came up to Hilltop House, he went out of his way to make Simon laugh; and in return, Simon welcomed Fats' visits, enjoyed his crudest jokes, liked hearing about his antics. Still, when alone with Andrew, Fats concurred wholeheartedly that Simon was a Grade A, 24-carat cunt.

  'I reckon she's a lezzer,' said Fats, as they walked past the Old Vicarage, dark in the shadow of the Scots pine, with ivy covering its front.

  'Your mum?' asked Andrew, barely listening, lost in his own thoughts.

  'What?' yelped Fats, and Andrew saw that he was genuinely outraged. 'Fuck off! Sukhvinder Jawanda. '

  'Oh, yeah. Right. '

  Andrew laughed, and so, a beat later, did Fats.

  The bus into Yarvil was crowded; Andrew and Fats had to sit next to each other, rather than in two double seats, as they preferred. As they passed the end of Hope Street, Andrew glanced along it, but it was deserted. He had not run into Gaia outside school since the afternoon when they had both secured Saturday jobs at the Copper Kettle. The cafe would open the following weekend; he experienced waves of euphoria every time he thought of it.

  'Si-Pie's election campaign on track, is it?' asked Fats, busy making roll-ups. One long leg was stuck out at an angle into the aisle of the bus; people were stepping over it rather than asking him to move. 'Cubby's cacking it already, and he's only making his pamphlet. '

  'Yeah, he's busy,' said Andrew, and he bore without flinching a silent eruption of panic in the pit of his stomach.

  He thought of his parents at the kitchen table, as they had been, nightly, for the past week; of a box of stupid pamphlets Simon had had printed at work; of the list of talking points Ruth had helped Simon compile, which he used as he made telephone calls, every evening, to every person he knew within the electoral boundary. Simon did all of it with an air of immense effort. He was tightl
y wound at home, displaying heightened aggression towards his sons; he might have been shouldering a burden that they had shirked. The only topic of conversation at meals was the election, with Simon and Ruth speculating about the forces ranged against Simon. They took it very personally that other candidates were standing for Barry Fairbrother's old seat, and seemed to assume that Colin Wall and Miles Mollison spent most of their time plotting together, staring up at Hilltop House, focused entirely on defeating the man who lived there.

  Andrew checked his pocket again for the folded paper. He had not told Fats what he intended to do. He was afraid that Fats might broadcast it; Andrew was not sure how to impress upon his friend the necessity for absolute secrecy, how to remind Fats that the maniac who had made little boys piss themselves was still alive and well, and living in Andrew's house.

  'Cubby's not too worried about Si-Pie,' said Fats. 'He thinks the big competition is Miles Mollison. '

  'Yeah,' said Andrew. He had heard his parents discussing it. Both of them seemed to think that Shirley had betrayed them; that she ought to have forbidden her son from challenging Simon.

  'This is a holy fucking crusade for Cubby, y'know,' said Fats, rolling a cigarette between forefinger and thumb. 'He's picking up the regimental flag for his fallen comrade. Ole Barry Fairbrother. '

  He poked strands of tobacco into the end of the roll-up with a match.

  'Miles Mollison's wife's got gigantic tits,' said Fats.

  An elderly woman sitting in front of them turned her head to glare at Fats. Andrew began to laugh again.

  'Humungous bouncing jubblies,' Fats said loudly, into the scowling, crumpled face. 'Great big juicy double-F mams. '

  She turned her red face slowly to face the front of the bus again. Andrew could barely breathe.

  They got off the bus in the middle of Yarvil, near the precinct and main pedestrian-only shopping street, and wove their way through the shoppers, smoking Fats' roll-ups. Andrew had virtually no money left: Howard Mollison's wages would be very welcome.

  The bright-orange sign of the internet cafe seemed to blaze at Andrew from a distance, beckoning him on. He could not concentrate on what Fats was saying. Are you going to? he kept asking himself. Are you going to?

  He did not know. His feet kept moving, and the sign was growing larger and larger, luring him, leering at him.

  If I find out you've breathed a word about what's said in this house, I'll skin you alive.

  But the alternative . . . the humiliation of having Simon show what he was to the world; the toll it would take on the family when, after weeks of anticipation and idiocy, he was defeated, as he must be. Then would come rage and spite, and a determination to make everybody else pay for his own lunatic decisions. Only the previous evening Ruth had said brightly, 'The boys will go through Pagford and post your pamphlets for you. ' Andrew had seen, in his peripheral vision, Paul's look of horror and his attempt to make eye contact with his brother.

  'I wanna go in here,' mumbled Andrew, turning right.

  They bought tickets with codes on them, and sat down at different computers, two occupied seats apart. The middle-aged man on Andrew's right stank of body odour and old fags, and kept sniffing.

  Andrew logged onto the internet, and typed in the name of the website: Pagford . . . Parish . . . Council . . . dot . . . co . . . dot . . . uk . . .

  The homepage bore the council arms in blue and white, and a picture of Pagford that had been taken from a point close to Hilltop House, with Pargetter Abbey silhouetted against the sky. The site, as Andrew already knew, from looking at it on a school computer, looked dated and amateurish. He had not dared go near it on his own laptop; his father might be immensely ignorant about the internet, but Andrew did not rule out the possibility that Simon might find somebody at work who could help him investigate, once the thing was done . . .

  Even in this bustling anonymous place, there was no avoiding the fact that today's date would be on the posting, or of pretending that he had not been in Yarvil when it happened; but Simon had never visited an internet cafe in his life, and might not be aware that they existed.

  The rapid contraction of Andrew's heart was painful. Swiftly, he scrolled down the message board, which did not seem to enjoy a lot of traffic. There were threads entitled: refuse collection - a Query and school catchment areas in Crampton and Little manning? Every tenth entry or so was a posting from the Administrator, attaching Minutes of the Last Council Meeting. Right at the bottom of the page was a thread entitled: Death of Cllr Barry Fairbrother. This had received 152 views and forty-three responses. Then, on the second page of the message board, he found what he hoped to find: a post from the dead man.

  A couple of months previously, Andrew's computing set had been supervised by a young supply teacher. He had been trying to look cool, trying to get the class onside. He shouldn't have mentioned SQL injections at all, and Andrew was quite sure that he had not been the only one who went straight home and looked them up. He pulled out the piece of paper on which he had written the code he had researched in odd moments at school, and brought up the log-in page on the council website. Everything hinged on the premise that the site had been set up by an amateur a long time ago; that it had never been protected from the simplest of classical hacks.

  Carefully, using only his index finger, he input the magic line of characters.

  He read them through twice, making sure that every apostrophe was where it should be, hesitated for a second on the brink, his breathing shallow, then pressed return.

  He gasped, as gleeful as a small child, and had to fight the urge to shout out or punch the air. He had penetrated the tin-pot site at his first attempt. There, on the screen in front of him, were Barry Fairbrother's user details: his name, his password, his entire profile.

  Andrew smoothed out the magic paper he had kept under his pillow all week, and set to work. Typing up his next paragraph, with its many crossings out and reworkings, was a much more laborious process.

  He had been trying for a style that was as impersonal and impenetrable as possible; for the dispassionate tone of a broadsheet journalist.

  Aspiring Parish Councillor Simon Price hopes to stand on a platform of cutting wasteful council spending. Mr Price is certainly no stranger to keeping down costs, and should be able to give the council the benefit of his many useful contacts. He saves money at home by furnishing it with stolen goods - most recently a PC - and he is the go-to man for any cut-price printing jobs that may need doing for cash, once senior management has gone home, at the Harcourt-Walsh Printworks.

  Andrew read the message through twice. He had been over it time and again in his mind. There were many accusations he could have levelled at Simon, but the court did not exist in which Andrew could have laid the real charges against his father, in which he would have presented as evidence memories of physical terror and ritual humiliation. All he had were the many petty infractions of the law of which he had heard Simon boast, and he had selected these two specific examples - the stolen computer and the out-of-hours printing jobs done on the sly - because both were firmly connected to Simon's workplace. People at the printer's knew that Simon did these things, and they could have talked to anybody: their friends, their families.

  His guts were juddering, the way they did when Simon truly lost control and laid about anyone within reach. Seeing his betrayal in black and white on the screen was terrifying.

  'What the fuck are you doing?' asked Fats' quiet voice in his ear.

  The stinking, middle-aged man had gone; Fats had moved up; he was reading what Andrew had written.

  'Fucking hell,' said Fats.

  Andrew's mouth was dry. His hand lay quiescent on the mouse.

  'How'd you get in?' Fats whispered.

  'SQL injection,' said Andrew. 'It's all on the net. Their security's shit. '

  Fats looked exhilarated; wildly impressed. Andrew was half pleased, half scare
d, by the reaction.

  'You've gotta keep this to - '

  'Lemme do one about Cubby!'

  'No!'

  Andrew's hand on the mouse skidded away from Fats' reaching fingers. This ugly act of filial disloyalty had sprung from the primordial soup of anger, frustration and fear that had slopped inside him all his rational life, but he knew no better way to convey this to Fats than by saying, 'I'm not just having a laugh. '

  He read the message through a third time, then added a title to the message. He could feel Fats' excitement beside him, as if they were having another porn session. Andrew was seized by a desire to impress further.

  'Look,' he said, and he changed Barry's username to The_Ghost_ of_Barry_Fairbrother.

  Fats laughed loudly. Andrew's fingers twitched on the mouse. He rolled it sideways. Whether he would have gone through with it if Fats had not been watching, he would never know. With a single click, a new thread appeared at the top of the Pagford Parish Council message board: Simon Price Unfit to Stand for Council.

  Outside on the pavement, they faced each other, breathless with laughter, slightly overawed by what had happened. Then Andrew borrowed Fats' matches, set fire to the piece of paper on which he had drafted the message, and watched it disintegrate into fragile black flakes, which drifted onto the dirty pavement and vanished under passing feet.