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The Casual Vacancy, Page 30

J. K. Rowling

Part Four Chapter II



  Parminder was not supposed to be working the next morning, but she had a meeting in Yarvil. Once the children had left for school she moved methodically around the house, making sure that she had everything she needed, but when the telephone rang, she jumped so much that she dropped her bag.

  'Yes?' she yelped, sounding almost frightened. Tessa, on the other end of the line, was taken aback.

  'Minda, it's me - are you all right?'

  'Yes - yes - the phone made me jump,' said Parminder, looking at the kitchen floor now littered with keys, papers, loose change and tampons. 'What is it?'

  'Nothing really,' said Tessa. 'Just calling for a chat. See how you are. '

  The subject of the anonymous post hung between them like some jeering monster, dangling from the line. Parminder had barely allowed Tessa to talk about it during yesterday's call. She had shouted, 'It's a lie, a filthy lie, and don't tell me Howard Mollison didn't do it!'

  Tessa had not dared pursue the subject.

  'I can't talk,' said Parminder. 'I've got a meeting in Yarvil. A case review for a little boy on the at-risk register. '

  'Oh, right. Sorry. Maybe later?'

  'Yes,' said Parminder. 'Great. Goodbye. '

  She scooped up the contents of her bag and hurried from the house, running back from the garden gate to check that she had closed the front door properly.

  Every so often, as she drove, she realized that she had no recollection of travelling the last mile, and told herself fiercely to concentrate. But the malicious words of the anonymous post kept coming back to her. She already knew them by heart.

  Parish Councillor Dr Parminder Jawanda, who pretends to be so keen on looking after the poor and needy of the area, has always had a secret motive. Until I died, she was in love with me, which she could barely hide whenever she laid eyes on me, and she would vote however I told her to, whenever there was a council meeting. Now that I am gone, she will be useless as a councillor, because she has lost her brain.

  She had first seen it the previous morning, when she opened up the council website to check the minutes of the last meeting. The shock had been almost physical; her breathing had become very fast and shallow, as it had been during the most excruciating parts of childbirth, when she had tried to lift herself over the pain, to disengage from the agonizing present.

  Everyone would know by now. There was nowhere to hide.

  The oddest thoughts kept coming to her. For instance, what her grandmother would have said if she had known that Parminder had been accused of loving another woman's husband, and a gora to boot, in a public forum. She could almost see bebe covering her face with a fold of her sari, shaking her head, rocking backwards and forwards as she had always done when a harsh blow had hit the family.

  'Some husbands,' Vikram had said to her late last night, with a strange new twist to his sardonic smile, 'might want to know whether it was true. '

  'Of course it isn't true!' Parminder had said, with her own shaking hand over her mouth. 'How can you ask me that? Of course it isn't! You knew him! He was my friend - just a friend!'

  She was already passing the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic. How had she travelled so far, without realizing it? She was becoming a dangerous driver. She was not paying attention.

  She remembered the evening that she and Vikram had gone to the restaurant, nearly twenty years ago, the night they had agreed to marry. She had told him about all the fuss the family had made when she had walked home with Stephen Hoyle, and he had agreed how silly it was. He had understood then. But he did not understand when it was Howard Mollison who accused her instead of her own hidebound relatives. Apparently he did not realise that goras could be narrow, and untruthful, and full of malice . . .

  She had missed the turning. She must concentrate. She must pay attention.

  'Am I late?' she called, as she hurried at last across the car park towards Kay Bawden. She had met the social worker once before, when she had come in for a renewal of her prescription for the pill.

  'Not at all,' said Kay. 'I thought I'd show you up to the office, because it's a rabbit warren in here . . . '

  Kay led her down a shabby, deserted institutional corridor into a meeting room. Three more women were already sitting there; they greeted Parminder with smiles.

  'This is Nina, who works with Robbie's mother at Bellchapel,' said Kay, sitting down with her back to the venetian-blinded windows. 'And this is my supervisor Gillian, and this is Louise Harper, who oversees the Anchor Road Nursery. Dr Parminder Jawanda, Robbie's GP,' Kay added.

  Parminder accepted coffee. The other four women began talking, without involving her.

  (Parish Councillor Dr Parminder Jawanda, who pretends to be so keen on looking after the poor and needy of the area . . .

  Who pretends to be so keen. You bastard, Howard Mollison. But he had always seen her as a hypocrite; Barry had said so.

  'He thinks that because I came from the Fields, I want Pagford overrun by Yarvillians. But you're proper professional class, so he doesn't think you've got any right to be on the side of the Fields. He thinks you're a hypocrite or making trouble for fun. ')

  '. . . understand why the family's registered with a GP in Pagford?' said one of the three unfamiliar social workers, whose names Parminder had already forgotten.

  'Several families in the Fields are registered with us,' said Parminder at once. 'But wasn't there some trouble with the Weedons and their previous - ?'

  'Yeah, the Cantermill practice threw them out,' said Kay, in front of whom sat a pile of notes thicker than either of her colleagues. 'Terri assaulted a nurse there. So they've been registered with you, how long?'

  'Nearly five years,' said Parminder, who had looked up all the details at the surgery.

  (She had seen Howard in church, at Barry's funeral, pretending to pray, with his big fat hands clasped in front of him, and the Fawleys kneeling beside him. Parminder knew what Christians were supposed to believe in. Love thy neighbour as thyself . . . if Howard had been more honest, he would have turned sideways and prayed to Aubrey . . .

  Until I died, she was in love with me, which she could barely hide whenever she laid eyes on me . . .

  Had she really not been able to hide it?)

  '. . . last seen him, Parminder?' asked Kay.

  'When his sister brought him in for antibiotics for an ear infection,' said Parminder. 'About eight weeks ago. '

  'And how was his physical condition then?' asked one of the other women.

  'Well, he's not failing to thrive,' said Parminder, withdrawing a slim sheaf of photocopied notes from her handbag. 'I checked him quite thoroughly, because - well, I know the family history. He's a good weight, although I doubt his diet's anything to write home about. No lice or nits or anything of that description. His bottom was a bit sore, and I remember his sister said that he still wets himself sometimes. '

  'They keep putting him back in nappies,' said Kay.

  'But you wouldn't,' asked the woman who had first questioned Parminder, 'have any major concerns health-wise?'

  'There was no sign of abuse,' said Parminder. 'I remember, I took off his vest to check, and there were no bruises or other injuries. '

  'There's no man in the house,' interjected Kay.

  'And this ear infection?' her supervisor prompted Parminder.

  'You said it was the sister who brought him in, not the mother? Are you Terri's doctor, too?'

  'I don't think we've seen Terri for five years,' said Parminder, and the supervisor turned to Nina instead.

  'How's she doing on methadone?'

  (Until I died, she was in love with me . . .

  Parminder thought, Perhaps it's Shirley, or Maureen, who's the ghost, not Howard - they would be much more likely to watch her when she was with Barry, hoping to see something with their dirty old-womanish minds . . . )

. . longest she's lasted on the programme so far,' said Nina. 'She's mentioned the case review quite a lot. I get the feeling she knows that this is it, that she's running out of chances. She doesn't want to lose Robbie. She's said that a few times. I'd have to say you've got through to her, Kay. I really do see her taking some responsibility for the situation, for the first time since I've known her. '

  'Thank you, but I'm not going to get over-excited. The situation's still pretty precarious. ' Kay's dampening words were at odds with her tiny irrepressible smile of satisfaction. 'How are things going at nursery, Louise?'

  'Well, he's back again,' said the fourth social worker. 'He's been in full attendance for the past three weeks, which is a dramatic change. The teenage sister brings him. His clothes are too small and usually dirty, but he talks about bath and meal times at home. '

  'And behaviourally?'

  'He's developmentally delayed. His language skills are very poor. He doesn't like men coming into the nursery. When fathers turn up, he won't go near them; he hangs around the nursery workers and becomes very anxious. And once or twice,' she said, turning a page in her notes, 'he's mimicked what are clearly sexual acts on or near little girls. '

  'I don't think, whatever we decide, there can be any question of taking him off the at-risk register,' said Kay, to a murmur of agreement.

  'It sounds like everything hinges on Terri staying on your programme,' said the supervisor to Nina, 'and staying off the game. '

  'That's key, certainly,' Kay agreed, 'but I'm concerned that even when she's heroin-free, she doesn't provide much mothering to Robbie. Krystal seems to be raising him, and she's sixteen and got plenty of her own issues . . . '

  (Parminder remembered what she had said to Sukhvinder a couple of nights previously.

  Krystal Weedon! That stupid girl! Is that what being in a team with Krystal Weedon taught you - to sink to her level?

  Barry had liked Krystal. He had seen things in her that were invisible to other people's eyes.

  Once, long ago, Parminder had told Barry the story of Bhai Kanhaiya, the Sikh hero who had administered to the needs of those wounded in combat, whether friend or foe. When asked why he gave aid indiscriminately, Bhai Kanhaiya had replied that the light of God shone from every soul, and that he had been unable to distinguish between them.

  The light of God shone from every soul.

  She had called Krystal Weedon stupid and implied that she was low.

  Barry would never have said it.

  She was ashamed. )

  '. . . when there was a great-grandmother who seemed to provide some back-up in care, but - '

  'She died,' said Parminder, rushing to say it before anyone else could. 'Emphysema and stroke. '

  'Yeah,' said Kay, still looking at her notes. 'So we go back to Terri. She came out of care herself. Has she ever attended parenting classes?'

  'We offer them, but she's never been in a fit state to attend,' said the woman from the nursery.

  'If she agreed to take them and actually turned up, it would be a massive step forward,' said Kay.

  'If they close us down,' sighed Nina from Bellchapel, addressing Parminder, 'I suppose she'll have to come to you for her methadone. '

  'I'm concerned that she wouldn't,' said Kay, before Parminder could answer.

  'What do you mean?' asked Parminder angrily.

  The other women stared at her.

  'Just that catching buses and remembering appointments isn't Terri's forte,' said Kay. 'She only has to walk up the road to Bellchapel. '

  'Oh,' said Parminder, mortified. 'Yes. Sorry. Yes, you're probably right. '

  (She had thought that Kay was making a reference to the complaint about Catherine Weedon's death; that she did not think Terri Weedon would trust her.

  Concentrate on what they're saying. What's wrong with you?)

  'So, big picture,' said the supervisor, looking down at her notes. 'We've got neglectful parenting interspersed with some adequate care. ' She sighed, but there was more exasperation than sadness in the sound. 'The immediate crisis is over - she's stopped using - Robbie's back in nursery, where we can keep a proper eye on him - and there's no immediate concern for his safety. As Kay says, he stays on the at-risk register . . . I certainly think we'll need another meeting in four weeks . . . '

  It was another forty minutes before the meeting broke up. Kay walked Parminder back down to the car park.

  'It was very good of you to come in person; most GPs send through a report. '

  'It was my morning off,' said Parminder. She meant it as an explanation for her attendance, because she hated sitting at home alone with nothing to do, but Kay seemed to think that she was asking for more praise and gave it.

  At Parminder's car, Kay said, 'You're the parish councillor, aren't you? Did Colin pass you the figures on Bellchapel I gave him?'

  'Yes, he did,' said Parminder. 'It would be good to have a talk about that some time. It's on the agenda for the next meeting. '

  But when Kay had given her her number, and left, with renewed thanks, Parminder's thoughts reverted to Barry, the Ghost and the Mollisons. She was driving through the Fields when the simple thought that she had tried to bury, to drown out, slipped past her lowered defences at last.

  Perhaps I did love him.