The casual vacancy, p.25
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       The Casual Vacancy, p.25

           J. K. Rowling
 
Part Three Chapter VIII

 

  VIII

  The move to Pagford had been the worst thing that had ever happened to Gaia Bawden. Excepting occasional visits to her father in Reading, London was all that she had ever known. So incredulous had Gaia been, when Kay had first said that she wanted to move to a tiny West Country town, that it had been weeks before she took the threat seriously. She had thought it one of Kay's mad ideas, like the two chickens she had bought for their tiny back garden in Hackney (killed by a fox a week after purchase), or deciding to ruin half their saucepans and permanently scar her own hand by making marmalade, when she hardly ever cooked.

  Wrenched from friends she had had since primary school, from the house she had known since she was eight, from weekends that were, increasingly, about every kind of urban fun, Gaia had been plunged, over her pleas, threats and protests, into a life she had never dreamed existed. Cobbled streets and no shops open past six o'clock, a communal life that seemed to revolve around the church, and where you could often hear birdsong and nothing else: Gaia felt as though she had fallen through a portal into a land lost in time.

  She and Kay had clung tightly to each other all Gaia's life (for her father had never lived with them, and Kay's two successive relationships had never been formalized), bickering, condoling and growing steadily more like flat-mates with the passing years. Now, though, Gaia saw nothing but an enemy when she looked across the kitchen table. Her only ambition was to return to London, by any means possible, and to make Kay as unhappy as she could, in revenge. She could not decide whether it would punish Kay more to fail all her GCSEs, or to pass them, and try and get her father to agree to house her, while she attended a sixth-form college in London. In the meantime, she had to exist in alien territory, where her looks and her accent, once instant passports to the most select social circles, had become foreign currency.

  Gaia had no desire to become one of the popular students at Winterdown: she thought they were embarrassing, with their West Country accents and their pathetic ideas of what constituted entertainment. Her determined pursuit of Sukhvinder Jawanda was, in part, a way of showing the in-crowd that she found them laughable, and partly because she was in a mood to feel kinship with anybody who seemed to have outsider status.

  The fact that Sukhvinder had agreed to join Gaia as a waitress had moved their friendship to a different level. In their next period of double biology, Gaia unbent as she had never done before, and Sukhvinder glimpsed, at last, part of the mysterious reason why this beautiful, cool newcomer had selected her as a friend. Adjusting the focus on their shared microscope, Gaia muttered, 'It's so frigging white here, isn't it?'

  Sukhvinder heard herself saying 'yeah' before she had fully considered the question. Gaia was still talking, but Sukhvinder was only half listening. 'So frigging white. ' She supposed that it was.

  At St Thomas's, she had been made to get up, the only brown person in the class, and talk about the Sikh religion. She had stood obediently at the front of the class and told the story of the Sikh religion's founder Guru Nanak, who disappeared into a river, and was believed drowned, but re-emerged after three days underwater to announce: 'There is no Hindu, there is no Moslem. '

  The other children had sniggered at the idea of anyone surviving underwater for three days. Sukhvinder had not had the courage to point out that Jesus had died and then come back to life. She had cut the story of Guru Nanak short, desperate to get back to her seat. She had only ever visited a gurdwara a handful of times in her life; there was none in Pagford, and the one in Yarvil was tiny and dominated, according to her parents, by Chamars, a different caste from their own. Sukhvinder did not even know why that mattered, because she knew that Guru Nanak explicitly forbade caste distinctions. It was all very confusing, and she continued to enjoy Easter eggs and decorating the Christmas tree, and found the books that Parminder pressed upon her children, explaining the lives of the gurus and the tenets of Khalsa, extremely difficult to read.

  'Because my mother wanted to be near her twat of a boyfriend,' muttered Gaia. 'Gavin Hughes, d'you know him?'

  Sukhvinder shook her head.

  'You've probably heard them shagging,' said Gaia. 'The whole street hears when they're at it. Just keep your windows open some night. '

  Sukhvinder tried not to look shocked, but the idea of overhearing her parents, her married parents, having sex was quite bad enough. Gaia herself was flushed; not, Sukhvinder thought, with embarrassment but with anger. 'He's going to ditch her. She's so deluded. He can't wait to leave after they've done it. '

  Sukhvinder would never have talked about her mother like this, and nor would the Fairbrother twins (still, in theory, her best friends). Niamh and Siobhan were working together at a microscope not far away. Since their father had died, they seemed to have closed in on themselves, choosing each other's company, drifting away from Sukhvinder.

  Andrew Price was staring almost constantly at Gaia through a gap in the white faces all around them. Sukhvinder, who had noticed this, thought that Gaia had not, but she was wrong. Gaia was simply not bothering to stare back or preen herself, because she was used to boys staring at her; it had been happening since she was twelve. Two boys in the lower sixth kept turning up in the corridors as she moved between classes, far more often than the law of averages would seem to dictate, and both were better-looking than Andrew. However, none of them could compare to the boy to whom Gaia had lost her virginity shortly before moving to Pagford.

  Gaia could hardly bear that Marco de Luca was still physically alive in the universe, and separated from her by a hundred and thirty-two miles of aching, useless space.

  'He's eighteen,' she told Sukhvinder. 'He's half Italian. He plays football really well. He's supposed to be getting a try-out for Arsenal's youth squad. '

  Gaia had had sex with Marco four times before leaving Hackney, each time stealing condoms out of Kay's bedside table. She had half wanted Kay to know to what lengths she was driven, to brand herself on Marco's memory because she was being forced to leave him.

  Sukhvinder listened, fascinated, but not admitting to Gaia that she had already seen Marco on her new friend's Facebook page. There was nobody like that in the whole of Winterdown: he looked like Johnny Depp.

  Gaia slumped against the desk, playing absent-mindedly with the focus on the microscope, and across the room Andrew Price continued to stare at Gaia whenever he thought Fats would not notice.

  'Maybe he'll be faithful. Sherelle's having a party on Saturday night. She's invited him. She's sworn she won't let him get up to anything. But shit, I wish . . . '

  She stared at the desk with her flecked eyes out of focus and Sukhvinder watched her humbly, marvelling at her good looks, lost in admiration for her life. The idea of having another world where you belonged completely, where you had a footballer boyfriend and a gang of cool, devoted friends, seemed to her, even if you had been forcibly removed from it all, an awe-inspiring and enviable state of affairs.

  They walked together to the shops at lunchtime, something Sukhvinder almost never did; she and the Fairbrother twins usually ate in the canteen.

  As they hung about on the pavement outside the newsagent's where they had bought sandwiches, they heard words uttered in a piercing scream.

  'Your fucking mum killed my Nan!'

  All the Winterdown students clustered by the newsagent's looked around for the source of the shouting, puzzled, and Sukhvinder imitated them, as confused as everyone else. Then she spotted Krystal Weedon, who was standing on the other side of the road, pointing a stubby finger like a gun. She had four other girls with her, all of them strung along the pavement in a line, held back by the traffic.

  'Your fucking mum killed my Nan! She's gonna get fucking done and so are you!'

  Sukhvinder's stomach seemed to melt clean away. People were staring at her. A couple of third-year girls scuttled out of sight. Sukhvinder sensed the bystanders nearby transformi
ng into a watchful, eager pack. Krystal and her gang were dancing on tiptoes, waiting for a break in the cars.

  'What's she talking about?' Gaia asked Sukhvinder, whose mouth was so dry that she could not reply. There was no point in running. She would never make it. Leanne Carter was the fastest girl in their year. All that seemed to move in the world were the passing cars, giving her a few final seconds of safety.

  And then Jaswant appeared, accompanied by several sixth-year boys.

  'All right, Jolly?' she said. 'What's up?'

  Jaswant had not heard Krystal; it was mere luck that she had drifted this way with her entourage. Over the road, Krystal and her friends had gone into a huddle.

  'Nothing much,' said Sukhvinder, dizzy with relief at her temporary reprieve. She could not tell Jaz what was happening in front of the boys. Two of them were nearly six feet tall. All were staring at Gaia.

  Jaz and her friends moved towards the newsagent's door, and Sukhvinder, with an urgent look at Gaia, followed them. She and Gaia watched through the window as Krystal and her gang moved on, glancing back every few steps.

  'What was that about?' Gaia asked.

  'Her great-gran was my mum's patient, and she died,' said Sukhvinder. She wanted to cry so much that the muscles in her throat were painful.

  'Silly bitch,' said Gaia.

  But Sukhvinder's suppressed sobs were born not only from the shaky aftermath of fear. She had liked Krystal very much, and she knew that Krystal had liked her too. All those afternoons on the canal, all those journeys in the minibus; she knew the anatomy of Krystal's back and shoulders better than she knew her own.

  They returned to school with Jaswant and her friends. The best-looking of the boys struck up a conversation with Gaia. By the time they had turned in at the gates, he was teasing her about her London accent. Sukhvinder could not see Krystal anywhere, but she spotted Fats Wall at a distance, loping along with Andrew Price. She would have known his shape and his walk anywhere, the way something primal inside you helped you recognize a spider moving across a shadowy floor.

  Wave upon wave of nausea rippled through her as she approached the school building. There would be two of them from now on: Fats and Krystal together. Everyone knew that they were seeing each other. And into Sukhvinder's mind dropped a vividly coloured picture of herself bleeding on the floor, and Krystal and her gang kicking her, and Fats Wall watching, laughing.

  'Need the loo,' she told Gaia. 'Meet you up there. '

  She dived into the first girls' bathroom they passed, locked herself in a cubicle and sat down on the closed seat. If she could have died . . . if she could have disappeared for ever . . . but the solid surface of things refused to dissolve around her, and her body, her hateful hermaphrodite's body, continued, in its stubborn, lumpen way, to live . . .

  She heard the bell for the start of afternoon lessons, jumped up and hurried out of the bathroom. Queues were forming along the corridor. She turned her back on all of them and marched out of the building.

  Other people truanted. Krystal did it and so did Fats Wall. If she could only get away and stay away this afternoon, she might be able to think of something to protect her before she had to go back in. Or she could walk in front of a car. She imagined it slamming into her body and her bones shattering. How quickly would she die, broken in the road? She still preferred the thought of drowning, of cool clean water putting her to sleep for ever: a sleep without dreams . . .

  'Sukhvinder? Sukhvinder!'

  Her stomach turned over. Tessa Wall was hurrying towards her across the car park. For one mad moment Sukhvinder considered running, but then the futility of it overwhelmed her, and she stood waiting for Tessa to reach her, hating her, with her stupid plain face and her evil son.

  'Sukhvinder, what are you doing? Where are you going?'

  She could not even think of a lie. With a hopeless gesture of her shoulders, she surrendered.

  Tessa had no appointments until three. She ought to have taken Sukhvinder to the office and reported her attempted flight; instead, she took Sukhvinder upstairs to the guidance room, with its Nepalese wall-hanging and the posters for ChildLine. Sukhvinder had never been there before.

  Tessa spoke, and left inviting little pauses, then spoke again, and Sukhvinder sat with sweaty palms, her gaze fixed on her shoes. Tessa knew her mother - Tessa would tell Parminder that she had tried to truant - but if she explained why? Would Tessa, could Tessa, intercede? Not with her son; she could not control Fats, that was common knowledge. But with Krystal? Krystal came to guidance . . .

  How bad would the beating be, if she told? But there would be a beating even if she did not tell. Krystal had been ready to set her whole gang on her . . .

  '. . . anything happened, Sukhvinder?'

  She nodded. Tessa said encouragingly, 'Can you tell me what it was?'

  So Sukhvinder told.

  She was sure she could read, in the minute contraction of Tessa's brow as she listened, something other than sympathy for herself. Perhaps Tessa was thinking about how Parminder might react to the news that her treatment of Mrs Catherine Weedon was being screamed about in the street. Sukhvinder had not forgotten to worry about that as she had sat in the bathroom cubicle, wishing for death. Or perhaps Tessa's look of unease was reluctance to tackle Krystal Weedon; doubtless Krystal was her favourite too, as she had been Mr Fairbrother's.

  A fierce, stinging sense of injustice burst through Sukhvinder's misery, her fear and her self-loathing; it swept aside that tangle of worries and terrors that encased her daily; she thought of Krystal and her mates, waiting to charge; she thought of Fats, whispering poisonous words from behind her in every maths lesson, and of the message that she had wiped off her Facebook page the previous evening:

  Les-bian-ism n. Sexual orientation of women to women. Also called Sapphism. A native or inhabitant of Lesbos.

  'I don't know how she knows,' said Sukhvinder, with the blood thrumming in her ears.

  'Knows . . . ?' asked Tessa, her expression still troubled.

  'That there's been a complaint about Mum and her great-gran. Krystal and her mum don't talk to the rest of the family. Maybe,' said Sukhvinder, 'Fats told her?'

  'Fats?' Tessa repeated uncomprehendingly.

  'You know, because they're seeing each other,' said Sukhvinder. 'Him and Krystal? Going out together? So maybe he told her. '

  It gave her some bitter satisfaction to see every vestige of professional calm drain from Tessa's face.