The casual vacancy, p.22
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       The Casual Vacancy, p.22

           J. K. Rowling
 
Part Three Chapter V

 

  V

  Ruth stood alone in her lamp-lit sitting room, continuing to grip the telephone she had just replaced in its cradle.

  Hilltop House was small and compact. It was always easy to tell the location of each of the four Prices, because voices, footfalls and the sounds of doors opening and shutting carried so effectively in the old house. Ruth knew that her husband was still in the shower, because she could hear the hot water boiler under the stairs hissing and clanking. She had waited for Simon to turn on the water before telephoning Shirley, worried that he might think that even her request about the EpiPen was fraternizing with the enemy.

  The family PC was set up in a corner of the sitting room, where Simon could keep an eye on it, and make sure nobody was running up large bills behind his back. Ruth relinquished her grip on the phone and hurried to the keyboard.

  It seemed to take a very long time to bring up the Pagford Council website. Ruth pushed her reading glasses up her nose with a trembling hand as she scanned the various pages. At last she found the message board. Her husband's name blazed out at her, in ghastly black and white: Simon Price Unfit to Stand for Council.

  She double-clicked the title, brought up the full paragraph and read it. Everything around her seemed to reel and spin.

  'Oh God,' she whispered.

  The boiler had stopped clanking. Simon would be putting on the pyjamas he had warmed on the radiator. He had already drawn the sitting-room curtains, turned on the side lamps and lit the wood-burner, so that he could come down and stretch out on the sofa to watch the news.

  Ruth knew that she would have to tell him. Not doing so, letting him find out for himself, was simply not an option; she would have been incapable of keeping it to herself. She felt terrified and guilty, though she did not know why.

  She heard him jogging down the stairs and then he appeared at the door in his blue brushed-cotton pyjamas.

  'Si,' she whispered.

  'What's the matter?' he said, immediately irritated. He knew that something had happened; that his luxurious programme of sofa, fire and news was about to be disarranged.

  She pointed at the computer monitor, one hand pressed foolishly over her mouth, like a little girl. Her terror infected him. He strode to the PC and scowled down at the screen. He was not a quick reader. He read every word, every line, painstakingly, carefully.

  When he had finished, he remained quite still, passing for review, in his mind, all the likely grasses. He thought of the gum-chewing forklift driver, whom he had left stranded in the Fields when they had picked up the new computer. He thought of Jim and Tommy, who did the cash-in-hand jobs on the sly with him. Someone from work must have talked. Rage and fear collided inside him and set off a combustive reaction.

  He strode to the foot of the stairs and shouted, 'You two! Get down here NOW!'

  Ruth still had her hand over her mouth. He had a sadistic urge to slap her hand away, to tell her to fucking pull herself together, it was he who was in the shit.

  Andrew entered the room first with Paul behind him. Andrew saw the arms of Pagford Parish Council onscreen, and his mother with her hand over her mouth. Walking barefoot across the old carpet, he had the sensation that he was plummeting through the air in a broken lift.

  'Someone,' said Simon, glaring at his sons, 'has talked about things I've mentioned inside this house. '

  Paul had brought his chemistry exercise book downstairs with him; he was holding it like a hymnal. Andrew kept his gaze fixed on his father, trying to project an expression of mingled confusion and curiosity.

  'Who's told other people we've got a stolen computer?' asked Simon.

  'I haven't,' said Andrew.

  Paul stared at his father blankly, trying to process the question. Andrew willed his brother to speak. Why did he have to be so slow?

  'Well?' Simon snarled at Paul.

  'I don't think I - '

  'You don't think? You don't think you told anyone?'

  'No, I don't think I told any - '

  'Oh, this is interesting,' said Simon, pacing up and down in front of Paul. 'This is interesting. '

  With a slap he sent Paul's exercise book flying out of his hands.

  'Try and think, dipshit,' he growled. 'Try and fucking think. Did you tell anyone we've got a stolen computer?'

  'Not stolen,' said Paul. 'I never told anyone - I don't think I told anyone we had a new one, even. '

  'I see,' said Simon. 'So the news got out by magic then, did it?'

  He was pointing at the computer monitor.

  'Someone's fucking talked!' he yelled, 'because it's on the fucking internet! And I'll be fucking lucky not - to - lose - my - job!'

  On each of the five last words he thumped Paul on the head with his fist. Paul cowered and ducked; black liquid trickled from his left nostril; he suffered nosebleeds several times a week.

  'And what about you?' Simon roared at his wife, who was still frozen beside the computer, her eyes wide behind her glasses, her hand clamped like a yashmak over her mouth. 'Have you been fucking gossiping?'

  Ruth ungagged herself.

  'No, Si,' she whispered, 'I mean, the only person I told we had a new computer was Shirley - and she'd never - '

  You stupid woman, you stupid fucking woman, what did you have to tell him that for?

  'You did what?' asked Simon quietly.

  'I told Shirley,' whimpered Ruth. 'I didn't say it was stolen, though, Si. I only said you were bringing it home - '

  'Well, that's fucking it then, isn't it?' roared Simon; his voice became a scream. 'Her fucking son's standing for election, of course she wants to get the fucking goods on me!'

  'But she's the one who told me, Si, just now, she wouldn't have - '

  He ran at her and hit her in the face, exactly as he had wanted to when he had first seen her silly frightened expression; her glasses spun into the air and smashed against the bookcase; he hit her again and she crashed down onto the computer table she had bought so proudly with her first month's wages from South West General.

  Andrew had made himself a promise: he seemed to move in slow motion, and everything was cold and clammy and slightly unreal.

  'Don't hit her,' he said, forcing himself between his parents. 'Don't - '

  His lip split against his front tooth, Simon's knuckle behind it, and he fell backwards on top of his mother, who was draped over the keyboard; Simon threw another punch, which hit Andew's arms as he protected his face; Andrew was trying to get off his slumped, struggling mother, and Simon was in a frenzy, pummelling both of them wherever he could reach -

  'Don't you fucking dare tell me what to do - don't you dare, you cowardly little shit, you spotty streak of piss - '

  Andrew dropped to his knees to get out of the way, and Simon kicked him in the ribs. Andrew heard Paul say pathetically, 'Stop it!' Simon's foot swung for Andrew's ribcage again, but Andrew dodged it; Simon's toes collided with the brick fireplace and he was suddenly, absurdly, howling in pain.

  Andrew scrambled out of the way; Simon was gripping the end of his foot, hopping on the spot and swearing in a high-pitched voice; Ruth had collapsed into the swivel chair, sobbing into her hands. Andrew got to his feet; he could taste his own blood.

  'Anyone could have talked about that computer,' he panted, braced for further violence; he felt braver now that it had begun, now that the fight was really on; it was waiting that told on your nerves, watching Simon's jaw begin to jut, and hearing the urge for violence building in his voice. 'You told us a security guard got beaten up. Anyone could have talked. It's not us - '

  'Don't you - fucking little shit - I've broken my fucking toe!' Simon gasped, falling backwards into an armchair, still nursing his foot. He seemed to expect sympathy.

  Andrew imagined picking up a gun and shooting Simon in the face, watching his features blast apart, his brains spattering the room.
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  'And Pauline's got her fucking period again!' Simon yelled at Paul, who was trying to contain the blood dripping through his fingers from his nose. 'Get off the carpet! Get off the fucking carpet, you little pansy!'

  Paul scuttled out of the room. Andrew pressed the hem of his T-shirt to his stinging mouth.

  'What about all the cash-in-hand jobs?' Ruth sobbed, her cheek pink from his punch, tears dripping from her chin. Andrew hated to see her humiliated and pathetic like this; but he half hated her too for landing herself in it, when any idiot could have seen . . . 'It says about the cash-in-hand jobs. Shirley doesn't know about them, how could she? Someone at the printworks has put that on there. I told you, Si, I told you you shouldn't do those jobs, they've always worried the living daylights out of - '

  'Fucking shut up, you whining cow, you didn't mind spending the money!' yelled Simon, his jaw jutting again; and Andrew wanted to roar at his mother to stay silent: she blabbed when any idiot could have told her she should keep quiet, and she kept quiet when she might have done good by speaking out; she never learned, she never saw any of it coming.

  Nobody spoke for a minute. Ruth dabbed at her eyes with the back of her hand and sniffed intermittently. Simon clutched his toe, his jaw clenched, breathing loudly. Andrew licked the blood from his stinging lip, which he could feel swelling.

  'This'll cost me my fucking job,' said Simon, staring wild-eyed around the room, as if there might be somebody there he had forgotten to hit. 'They're already talking about fucking redundancies. This'll be it. This'll - ' He slapped the lamp off the end table, but it didn't break, merely rolled on the floor. He picked it up, tugged the lead out of the wall socket, raised it over his head and threw it at Andrew, who dodged.

  'Who's fucking talked?' Simon yelled, as the lamp base broke apart on the wall. 'Someone's fucking talked!'

  'It's some bastard at the printworks, isn't it?' Andrew shouted back; his lip was thick and throbbing; it felt like a tangerine segment. 'D'you think we'd have - d'you think we don't know how to keep our mouths shut by now?'

  It was like trying to read a wild animal. He could see the muscles working in his father's jaw, but he could tell that Simon was considering Andrew's words.

  'When was that put on there?' he roared at Ruth. 'Look at it! What's the date on it?'

  Still sobbing, she peered at the screen, needing to approach the tip of her nose within two inches of it, now that her glasses were broken.

  'The fifteenth,' she whispered.

  'Fifteenth . . . Sunday,' said Simon. 'Sunday, wasn't it?'

  Neither Andrew nor Ruth put him right. Andrew could not believe his luck; nor did he believe it would hold.

  'Sunday,' said Simon, 'so anyone could've - my fucking toe,' he yelled, as he pulled himself up and limped exaggeratedly towards Ruth. 'Get out of my way!'

  She hastened out of the chair and watched him read the paragraph through again. He kept snorting like an animal to clear his airways. Andrew thought that he might be able to garrotte his father as he sat there, if only there was a wire to hand.

  'Someone's got all this from work,' said Simon, as if he had just reached this conclusion, and had not heard his wife or son urging the hypothesis on him. He placed his hands on the keyboard and turned to Andrew. 'How do I get rid of it?'

  'What?'

  'You do fucking computing! How do I get this off here?'

  'You can't get - you can't,' said Andrew. 'You'd need to be the administrator. '

  'Make yourself the administrator, then,' said Simon, jumping up and pointing Andrew into the swivel chair.

  'I can't make myself the administrator,' said Andrew. He was afraid that Simon was working himself up into a second bout of violence. 'You need to input the right user name and passwords. '

  'You're a real fucking waste of space, aren't you?'

  Simon shoved Andrew in the middle of his sternum as he limped past, knocking him back into the mantelpiece.

  'Pass me the phone!' Simon shouted at his wife, as he sat back down in the armchair.

  Ruth took the telephone and carried it the few feet to Simon. He ripped it out of her hands and punched in a number.

  Andrew and Ruth waited in silence as Simon called, first Jim, and then Tommy, the men with whom he had completed the after-hours jobs at the printworks. Simon's fury, his suspicion of his own accomplices, was funnelled down the telephone in curt short sentences full of swearwords.

  Paul had not returned. Perhaps he was still trying to staunch his bleeding nose, but more likely he was too scared. Andrew thought his brother unwise. It was safest to leave only after Simon had given you permission.

  His calls completed, Simon held out the telephone to Ruth without speaking; she took it and hurried it back into its stand.

  Simon sat thinking while his fractured toe pulsated, sweating in the heat of the wood-burner, awash with impotent fury. The beating to which he had subjected his wife and son was nothing, he did not give them a thought; a terrible thing had just happened to him, and naturally his rage had exploded on those nearest him; that was how life worked. In any case, Ruth, the silly bitch, had admitted to telling Shirley . . .

  Simon was building his own chain of evidence, as he thought things must have happened. Some fucker (and he suspected that gum-chewing forklift driver, whose expression, as Simon had sped away from him in the Fields, had been outraged) talking about him to the Mollisons (somehow, illogically, Ruth's admission that she had mentioned the computer to Shirley made this seem more likely), and they (the Mollisons, the establishment, the smooth and the snide, guarding their access to power) had put up this message on their website (Shirley, the old cow, managed the site, which set the seal on the theory).

  'It's your fucking friend,' Simon told his wet-faced, trembling-lipped wife. 'It's your fucking Shirley. She's done this. She's got some dirt on me to get me off her son's case. That's who it is. '

  'But Si - '

  Shut up, shut up, you silly cow, thought Andrew.

  'Still on her side, are you?' roared Simon, making to stand again.

  'No!' squealed Ruth, and he sank back into the chair, glad to keep the weight off his pounding foot.

  The Harcourt-Walsh management would not be happy about those after-hours jobs, Simon thought. He wouldn't put it past the bloody police to come nosing around the computer. A desire for urgent action filled him.

  'You,' he said, pointing at Andrew. 'Unplug that computer. All of it, the leads and everything. You're coming with me. '