The casual vacancy, p.31
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       The Casual Vacancy, p.31

           J. K. Rowling
Part Four Chapter III



  Andrew had spent hours deciding which clothes he ought to wear for his first day's work at the Copper Kettle. His final choice was draped over the back of the chair in his bedroom. A particularly angry acne pustule had chosen to bring itself to a shiny tight peak on his left cheek, and Andrew had gone so far as to experiment with Ruth's foundation, which he had sneaked out of her dressing-table drawer.

  He was laying the kitchen table on Friday evening, his mind full of Gaia and the seven solid hours of close proximity to her that were within touching distance, when his father returned from work in a state that Andrew had never seen before. Simon seemed subdued, almost disorientated.

  'Where's your mother?'

  Ruth came bustling out of the walk-in pantry.

  'Hello Si-Pie! How - what's wrong?'

  'They've made me redundant. '

  Ruth clapped her hands to her face in horror, then dashed to her husband, threw her arms around his neck and drew him close.

  'Why?' she whispered.

  'That message,' said Simon. 'On that fucking website. They pulled in Jim and Tommy too. It was take redundancy or we'll sack you. And it's a shitty deal. It's not even what they gave Brian Grant. '

  Andrew stood perfectly still, calcifying slowly into a monument of guilt.

  'Fuck,' said Simon, into Ruth's shoulder.

  'You'll get something else,' she whispered.

  'Not round here,' said Simon.

  He sat down on a kitchen chair, still in his coat, and stared across the room, apparently too stunned to speak. Ruth hovered around him, dismayed, affectionate and tearful. Andrew was glad to detect in Simon's catatonic gaze a whiff of his usual ham theatrics. It made him feel slightly less guilty. He continued to lay the table without saying a word.

  Dinner was a subdued affair. Paul, apprised of the family news, looked terrified, as though his father might accuse him of causing it all. Simon acted like a Christian martyr through the first course, wounded but dignified in the face of unwarranted persecution, but then - 'I'll pay someone to punch the fucker's fat face through the back of his neck,' he burst out as he spooned apple crumble into himself; and the family knew that he meant Howard Mollison.

  'You know, there's been another message on that council website,' said Ruth breathlessly. 'It's not only you who's had it, Si. Shir - somebody told me at work. The same person - The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother - has put up something horrible about Dr Jawanda. So Howard and Shirley got someone in to look at the site, and he realized that whoever's doing these messages has been using Barry Fairbrother's log-in details, so to be safe, they've taken them off the - the database or something - '

  'And will any of this get me my fucking job back?'

  Ruth did not speak again for several minutes.

  Andrew was unnerved by what his mother had said. It was worrying that The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother was being investigated, and unnerving that somebody else had followed his lead.

  Who else would have thought of using Barry Fairbrother's log-in details but Fats? Yet why would Fats go for Dr Jawanda? Or was it just another way of getting at Sukhvinder? Andrew did not like it at all . . .

  'What's the matter with you?' Simon barked across the table.

  'Nothing,' Andrew muttered, and then, backtracking, 'it's a shock, isn't it . . . your job . . . '

  'Oh, you're shocked, are you?' shouted Simon, and Paul dropped his spoon and dribbled ice cream down himself. '(Clean it up, Pauline, you little pansy!) Well, this is the real world, Pizza Face!' he shouted at Andrew. 'Fuckers everywhere trying to do you down! So you,' he pointed across the table at his eldest son, 'you get some dirt on Mollison, or don't bother coming home tomorrow!'

  'Si - '

  Simon pushed his chair away from the table, threw down his own spoon, which bounced onto the floor with a clatter, and stalked from the room, slamming the door behind him. Andrew waited for the inevitable, and was not disappointed.

  'It's a terrible shock for him,' a shaken Ruth whispered at her sons. 'After all the years he's given that company . . . he's worried how he's going to look after us all . . . '

  When the alarm rang at six thirty the next morning, Andrew slammed it off within seconds and virtually leapt out of bed. Feeling as though it was Christmas Day, he washed and dressed at speed, then spent forty minutes on his hair and face, dabbing minuscule amounts of foundation onto the most obvious of his spots.

  He half expected Simon to waylay him as he crept past his parents' room, but he met nobody, and after a hasty breakfast he wheeled Simon's racing bicycle out of the garage and sped off down the hill towards Pagford.

  It was a misty morning that promised sunshine later. The blinds were still down in the delicatessen, but the door tinkled and gave when he pushed it.

  'Not this way!' shouted Howard, waddling towards him. 'You come in round the back! You can leave the bike by the bins, get it away from the front!'

  The rear of the delicatessen, reached by a narrow passageway, comprised a tiny dank patch of stone-paved yard, bordered by high walls, sheds with industrial-sized metal bins and a trapdoor that led down vertiginous steps to a cellar.

  'You can chain it up somewhere there, out of the way,' said Howard, who had appeared at the back door, wheezing and sweaty-faced. While Andrew fumbled with the padlock on the chain, Howard dabbed at his forehead with his apron.

  'Right, we'll start with the cellar,' he said, when Andrew had secured the bicycle. He pointed at the trapdoor. 'Get down there and see the layout. '

  He bent over the hatch as Andrew climbed down the steps. Howard had not been able to climb down into his own cellar for years. Maureen usually tottered up and down the steps a couple of times a week; but now that it was fully stocked with goods for the cafe, younger legs were indispensible.

  'Have a good look around,' he shouted at the out-of-sight Andrew. 'See where we've got the gateaux and all the baked goods? See the big bags of coffee beans and the boxes of teabags? And in the corner - the toilet rolls and the bin bags?'

  'Yeah,' Andrew's voice echoed up from the depths.

  'You can call me Mr Mollison,' said Howard, with a slightly tart edge to his wheezy voice.

  Down in the cellar, Andrew wondered whether he ought to start straight away.

  'OK . . . Mr Mollison. '

  It sounded sarcastic. He hastened to make amends with a polite question.

  'What's in these big cupboards?'

  'Have a look,' said Howard impatiently. 'That's what you're down there for. To know where you put everything and where you get it from. '

  Howard listened to the muffled sounds of Andrew opening the heavy doors, and hoped that the boy would not prove gormless or need a lot of direction. Howard's asthma was particularly bad today; the pollen count was unseasonably high, on top of all the extra work, and the excitement and petty frustrations of the opening. The way he was sweating, he might need to ring Shirley to bring him a new shirt before they unlocked the doors.

  'Here's the van!' Howard shouted, hearing a rumble at the other end of the passageway. 'Get up here! You're to carry the stuff down to the cellar and put it away, all right? And bring a couple of gallons of milk through to me in the cafe. You got that?'

  'Yeah . . . Mr Mollison,' said Andrew's voice from below.

  Howard walked slowly back inside to fetch the inhaler that he kept in his jacket, which was hanging up in the staff room behind the delicatessen counter. Several deep breaths later, he felt much better. Wiping his face on his apron again, he sat down on one of the creaking chairs to rest.

  Several times since he had been to see her about his skin rash, Howard had thought about what Dr Jawanda had said about his weight: that it was the source of all his health problems.

  Nonsense, obviously. Look at the Hubbards' boy: built like a beanpole, and shocking asthma. Howard had always been big, as far back as he cou
ld remember. In the very few photographs taken of him with his father, who had left the family when Howard was four or five, he was merely chubby. After his father had left, his mother had sat him at the head of the table, between herself and his grandmother, and been hurt if he did not take seconds. Steadily he had grown to fill the space between the two women, as heavy at twelve as the father who had left them. Howard had come to associate a hearty appetite with manliness. His bulk was one of his defining characteristics. It had been built with pleasure, by the women who loved him, and he thought it was absolutely characteristic of Bends-Your-Ear, that emasculating killjoy, that she wanted to strip him of it.

  But sometimes, in moments of weakness, when it became difficult to breathe or to move, Howard knew fear. It was all very well for Shirley to act as though he had never been in danger, but he remembered long nights in the hospital after his bypass, when he had not been able to sleep for worry that his heart might falter and stop. Whenever he caught sight of Vikram Jawanda, he remembered that those long dark fingers had actually touched his naked, beating heart; the bonhomie with which he brimmed at each encounter was a way of driving out that primitive, instinctive terror. They had told him at the hospital afterwards that he needed to lose some weight, but he had dropped two stone naturally while he was forced to live off their dreadful food, and Shirley had been intent on fattening him up again once he was out . . .

  Howard sat for a moment more, enjoying the ease with which he breathed after using his inhaler. Today meant a great deal to him. Thirty-five years previously, he had introduced fine dining to Pagford with the elan of a sixteenth-century adventurer returning with delicacies from the other side of the world, and Pagford, after initial wariness, had soon begun to nose curiously and timidly into his polystyrene pots. He thought wistfully of his late mother, who had been so proud of him and his thriving business. He wished that she could have seen the cafe. Howard heaved himself back to his feet, took his deerstalker from its hook and placed it carefully on his head in an act of self-coronation.

  His new waitresses arrived together at half-past eight. He had a surprise for them.

  'Here you are,' he said, holding out the uniforms: black dresses with frilly white aprons, exactly as he had imagined. 'Ought to fit. Maureen reckoned she knew your sizes. She's wearing one herself. '

  Gaia forced back a laugh as Maureen stalked into the delicatessen from the cafe, smiling at them. She was wearing Dr Scholl's sandals over her black stockings. Her dress finished two inches above her wrinkled knees.

  'You can change in the staff room, girls,' she said, indicating the place from which Howard had just emerged.

  Gaia was already pulling off her jeans beside the staff toilet when she saw Sukhvinder's expression.

  'Whassamatter, Sooks?' she asked.

  The new nickname gave Sukhvinder the courage to say what she might otherwise have been unable to voice.

  'I can't wear this,' she whispered.

  'Why?' asked Gaia. 'You'll look OK. '

  But the black dress had short sleeves.

  'I can't. '

  'But wh - Jesus,' said Gaia.

  Sukhvinder had pulled back the sleeves of her sweatshirt. Her inner arms were covered in ugly criss-cross scars, and angry fresh-clotted cuts travelled up from her wrist to her inner arm.

  'Sooks,' said Gaia quietly. 'What are you playing at, mate?'

  Sukhvinder shook her head, with her eyes full of tears.

  Gaia thought for a moment, then said, 'I know - come here. '

  She was stripping off her long-sleeved T-shirt.

  The door suffered a big blow and the imperfectly closed bolt shot open: a sweating Andrew was halfway inside, carrying two weighty packs of toilet rolls, when Gaia's angry shout stopped him in his tracks. He tripped out backwards, into Maureen.

  'They're changing in there,' she said, in sour disapproval.

  'Mr Mollison told me to put these in the staff bathroom. '

  Holy shit, holy shit. She had been stripped to her bra and pants. He had seen nearly everything.

  'Sorry,' Andrew yelled at the closed door. His whole face was throbbing with the force of his blush.

  'Wanker,' muttered Gaia, on the other side. She was holding out her T-shirt to Sukhvinder. 'Put it on underneath the dress. '

  'That'll look weird. '

  'Never mind. You can get a black one for next week, it'll look like you're wearing long sleeves. We'll tell him some story . . . '

  'She's got eczema,' Gaia announced, when she and Sukhvinder emerged from the staff room, fully dressed and aproned. 'All up her arms. It's a bit scabby. '

  'Ah,' said Howard, glancing at Sukhvinder's white T-shirted arms and then back at Gaia, who looked every bit as gorgeous as he had hoped.

  'I'll get a black one for next week,' said Sukhvinder, unable to look Howard in the eye.

  'Fine,' he said, patting Gaia in the small of her back as he sent the pair of them through to the cafe. 'Brace yourselves,' he called to his staff at large. 'We're nearly there . . . doors open, please, Maureen!'

  There was already a little knot of customers waiting on the pavement. A sign outside read: The Copper Kettle, Opening Today - First Coffee Free!

  Andrew did not see Gaia again for hours. Howard kept him busy heaving milk and fruit juices up and down the steep cellar steps, and swabbing the floor of the small kitchen area at the back. He was given a lunch break earlier than either of the waitresses. The next glimpse he got of her was when Howard summoned him to the counter of the cafe, and they passed within inches of each other as she walked in the other direction, towards the back room.

  'We're swamped, Mr Price!' said Howard, in high good humour. 'Get yourself a clean apron and mop down some of these tables for me while Gaia has her lunch!'

  Miles and Samantha Mollison had sat down with their two daughters and Shirley at a table in the window.

  'It seems to be going awfully well, doesn't it?' Shirley said, looking around. 'But what on earth is that Jawanda girl wearing under her dress?'

  'Bandages?' suggested Miles, squinting across the room.

  'Hi, Sukhvinder!' called Lexie, who knew her from primary school.

  'Don't shout, darling,' Shirley reproved her granddaughter, and Samantha bristled.

  Maureen emerged from behind the counter in her short black dress and frilly apron, and Shirley corpsed into her coffee.

  'Oh dear,' she said quietly, as Maureen walked towards them, beaming.

  It was true, Samantha thought, Maureen looked ridiculous, especially next to a pair of sixteen-year-olds in identical dresses, but she was not going to give Shirley the satisfaction of agreeing with her. She turned ostentatiously away, watching the boy mopping tables nearby. He was spare but reasonably broad-shouldered. She could see his muscles working under the loose T-shirt. Incredible to think that Miles' big fat backside could ever have been that small and tight - then the boy turned into the light and she saw his acne.

  'Not half bad, is it?' Maureen was croaking to Miles. 'We've been full all day. '

  'All right, girls,' Miles addressed his family, 'what'll we have to keep up Grandpa's profits?'

  Samantha listlessly ordered a bowl of soup, as Howard waddled through from the delicatessen; he had been striding in and out of the cafe every ten minutes all day, greeting customers and checking the flow of cash into the till.

  'Roaring success,' he told Miles, squeezing in at their table. 'What d'you think of the place, Sammy? You haven't seen it before, have you? Like the mural? Like the china?'

  'Mm,' said Samantha. 'Lovely. '

  'I was thinking about having my sixty-fifth here,' said Howard, absent-mindedly scratching at the itch Parminder's creams had not yet cured, 'but it's not big enough. I think we'll stick with the church hall. '

  'When's that, Grandpa?' piped up Lexie. 'Am I coming?'

  'Twenty-ninth, and what are you now - sixteen? Course you can c
ome,' said Howard happily.

  'The twenty-ninth?' said Samantha. 'Oh, but . . . '

  Shirley looked at her sharply.

  'Howard's been planning this for months. We've all been talking about it for ages. '

  '. . . that's the night of Libby's concert,' said Samantha.

  'A school thing, is it?' asked Howard.

  'No,' said Libby, 'Mum's got me tickets for my favourite group. It's in London. '

  'And I'm going with her,' said Samantha. 'She can't go alone. '

  'Harriet's mum says she could - '

  'I'm taking you, Libby, if you're going to London. '

  'The twenty-ninth?' said Miles, looking hard at Samantha. 'The day after the election?'

  Samantha let loose the derisive laugh that she had spared Maureen.

  'It's the Parish Council, Miles. It's not as though you'll be giving press conferences. '

  'Well, we'll miss you, Sammy,' said Howard, as he hauled himself up with the aid of the back of her chair. 'Best get on . . . all right, Andrew, you're done here . . . go and see if we need anything up from the cellar. '

  Andrew was forced to wait beside the counter while people passed to and from the bathroom. Maureen was loading up Sukhvinder with plates of sandwiches.

  'How's your mother?' she asked the girl abruptly, as though the thought had just occurred to her.

  'Fine,' said Sukhvinder, her colour rising.

  'Not too upset by that nasty business on the council website?'

  'No,' said Sukhvinder, her eyes watering.

  Andrew proceeded out into the dank yard, which, in the early afternoon, had become warm and sunny. He had hoped that Gaia might be there, taking a breath of fresh air, but she must have gone into the staff room in the deli. Disappointed, he lit up a cigarette. He had barely inhaled when Gaia emerged from the cafe, finishing her lunch with a can of fizzy drink.

  'Hi,' said Andrew, his mouth dry.

  'Hi,' she said. Then, after a moment or two: 'Hey, why's that friend of yours such a shit to Sukhvinder? Is it personal or is he racist?'

  'He isn't racist,' said Andrew. He removed the cigarette from his mouth, trying to keep his hands from trembling, but could not think of anything else to say. The sunshine reflected off the bins warmed his sweaty back; close proximity to her in the tight black dress was almost overwhelming, especially now that he had glimpsed what lay beneath. He took another drag of the cigarette, not knowing when he had felt so bedazzled or so alive.

  'What's she ever done to him, though?'

  The curve of her hips to her tiny waist; the perfection of her wide, flecked eyes over the can of Sprite. Andrew felt like saying, Nothing, he's a bastard, I'll hit him if you let me touch you . . .

  Sukhvinder emerged into the yard, blinking in the sunlight; she looked uncomfortable and hot in Gaia's top.

  'He wants you back in,' she said to Gaia.

  'He can wait,' said Gaia coolly. 'I'm finishing this. I've only had forty minutes. '

  Andrew and Sukhvinder contemplated her as she sipped her drink, awed by her arrogance and her beauty.

  'Was that old bitch saying something to you just then, about your mum?' Gaia asked Sukhvinder.

  Sukhvinder nodded.

  'I think it might've been his mate,' she said, staring at Andrew again, and he found her emphasis on his positively erotic, even if she meant it to be derogatory, 'who put that message about your mum on that website. '

  'Can't've been,' said Andrew, and his voice wobbled slightly. 'Whoever did it went after my old man, too. Couple of weeks ago. '

  'What?' asked Gaia. 'The same person posted something about your dad?'

  He nodded, relishing her interest.

  'Something about stealing, wasn't it?' asked Sukhvinder, with considerable daring.

  'Yeah,' said Andrew. 'And he got the sack for it yesterday. So her mum,' he met Gaia's blinding gaze almost steadily, 'isn't the only one who's suffered. '

  'Bloody hell,' said Gaia, upending the can and throwing it into a bin. 'People round here are effing mental. '