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The Casual Vacancy, Page 35

J. K. Rowling

Part Four Chapter VII



  It was a bright, balmy morning, and the computing lab at Winterdown Comprehensive became stuffy as lunchtime approached, the dirty windows speckling the dusty monitors with distracting spots of light. Even though there was no Fats or Gaia here to distract him, Andrew Price could not concentrate. He could think of nothing but what he had overheard his parents discussing the previous evening.

  They had been talking, quite seriously, about moving to Reading, where Ruth's sister and brother-in-law lived. With his ear turned towards the open kitchen door, Andrew had hovered in the tiny dark hall and listened: Simon, it appeared, had been offered a job, or the possibility of a job, by the uncle whom Andrew and Paul barely knew, because Simon disliked him so much.

  'It's less money,' Simon had said.

  'You don't know that. He hasn't said - '

  'Bound to be. And it'll be more expensive all round, living there. '

  Ruth made a noncommital noise. Scarcely daring to breathe in the hall, Andrew could tell, by the mere fact that his mother was not rushing to agree with Simon, that she wanted to go.

  Andrew found it impossible to imagine his parents in any house but Hilltop House, or against any backdrop but Pagford. He had taken it for granted that they would remain there for ever. He, Andrew, would leave one day for London, but Simon and Ruth would remain rooted to the hillside like trees, until they died.

  He had crept back upstairs to his bedroom and stared out of the window at the twinkling lights of Pagford, cupped in the deep black hollow between the hills. He felt as though he had never seen the view before. Somewhere down there, Fats was smoking in his attic room, probably looking at porn on his computer. Gaia was there too, absorbed in the mysterious rites of her gender. It occurred to Andrew that she had been through this; she had been torn away from the place she knew and transplanted. They had something profoundly in common at last; there was almost melancholy pleasure in the idea that, in leaving, he would share something with her.

  But she had not caused her own displacement. With a squirming unease in his guts, he had picked up his mobile and texted Fats: Si-Pie offered job in Reading. Might take it.

  Fats had still not responded, and Andrew had not seen him all morning, because they shared none of their classes. He had not seen Fats for the previous two weekends either, because he had been working at the Copper Kettle. Their longest conversation, recently, had concerned Fats' posting about Cubby on the council website.

  'I think Tessa suspects,' Fats had told Andrew casually. 'She keeps looking at me like she knows. '

  'What're you gonna say?' Andrew had muttered, scared.

  He knew Fats' desire for glory and credit, and he knew Fats' passion for wielding the truth as a weapon, but he was not sure that his friend understood that his own pivotal role in the activities of the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother must never be revealed. It had never been easy to explain to Fats the reality of having Simon as a father, and, somehow, Fats was becoming more difficult to explain things to.

  When his IT teacher had passed by out of sight, Andrew looked up Reading on the internet. It was huge compared with Pagford. It had an annual music festival. It was only forty miles from London. He contemplated the train service. Perhaps he would go up to the capital at weekends, the way he currently took the bus to Yarvil. But the whole thing seemed unreal: Pagford was all he had ever known; he still could not imagine his family existing anywhere else.

  At lunchtime Andrew headed straight out of school, looking for Fats. He lit up a cigarette just out of sight of the grounds, and was delighted to hear, as he was slipping his lighter casually back into his pocket, a female voice that said, 'Hey'. Gaia and Sukhvinder caught up with him.

  'All right,' he said, blowing smoke away from Gaia's beautiful face.

  The three of them had something these days that nobody else had. Two weekends' work at the cafe had created a fragile bond between them. They knew Howard's stock phrases, and had endured Maureen's prurient interest in all of their home lives; they had smirked together at her wrinkled knees in the too-short waitress's dress and had exchanged, like traders in a foreign land, small nuggets of personal information. Thus the girls knew that Andrew's father had been sacked; Andrew and Sukhvinder knew that Gaia was working to save for a train ticket back to Hackney; and he and Gaia knew that Sukhvinder's mother hated her working for Howard Mollison.

  'Where's your Fat friend?' she asked, as the three of them fell into step together.

  'Dunno,' said Andrew. 'Haven't seen him. '

  'No loss,' said Gaia. 'How many of those do you smoke a day?'

  'Don't count,' said Andrew, elated by her interest. 'D'you want one?'

  'No,' said Gaia. 'I don't like smoking. '

  He wondered instantly whether the dislike extended to kissing people who smoked. Niamh Fairbrother had not complained when he had stuck his tongue into her mouth at the school disco.

  'Doesn't Marco smoke?' asked Sukhvinder.

  'No, he's always in training,' said Gaia.

  Andrew had become almost inured to the thought of Marco de Luca by now. There were advantages to Gaia being safeguarded, as it were, by an allegiance beyond Pagford. The power of the photographs of them together on her Facebook page had been blunted by his familiarity with them. He did not think it was his own wishful thinking that the messages she and Marco left for each other were becoming less frequent and less friendly. He could not know what was happening by telephone or email, but he was sure that Gaia's air, when he was mentioned, was dispirited.

  'Oh, there he is,' said Gaia.

  It was not the handsome Marco who had come into view, but Fats Wall, who was talking to Dane Tully outside the newsagent's.

  Sukhvinder braked, but Gaia grabbed her upper arm.

  'You can walk where you like,' she said, tugging her gently onwards, her flecked green eyes narrowing as they approached the place where Fats and Dane were smoking.

  'All right, Arf,' called Fats, as the three of them came close.

  'Fats,' said Andrew.

  Trying to head off trouble, especially Fats bullying Sukhvinder in front of Gaia, he asked, 'Did you get my text?'

  'What text?' said Fats. 'Oh yeah - that thing about Si? You leaving, then, are you?'

  It was said with a cavalier indifference that Andrew could only attribute to the presence of Dane Tully.

  'Yeah, maybe,' said Andrew.

  'Where are you going?' asked Gaia.

  'My old man's been offered a job in Reading,' said Andrew.

  'Oh, that's where my dad lives!' said Gaia in surprise. 'We could hang out when I go and stay. The festival's awesome. D'you wanna get a sandwich, then, Sooks?'

  Andrew was so stupefied by her voluntary offer to spend time with him, that she had disappeared into the newsagent's before he could gather his wits and agree. For a moment, the dirty bus stop, the newsagent's, even Dane Tully, tattooed and shabby in a T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms, seemed to glow with an almost celestial light.

  'Well, I got things to do,' said Fats.

  Dane sniggered. Before Andrew could say anything or offer to accompany him, he had loped away.

  Fats was sure that Andrew would be nonplussed and hurt by his cool attitude, and he was glad of it. Fats did not ask himself why he was glad, or why a general desire to cause pain had become his overriding emotion in the last few days. He had lately decided that questioning your own motives was inauthentic; a refinement of his personal philosophy that had made it altogether easier to follow.

  As he headed into the Fields, Fats thought about what had happened at home the previous evening, when his mother had entered his bedroom for the first time since Cubby had punched him.

  ('That message about your father on the Parish Council website,' she had said. 'I've got to ask you this, Stuart, and I wish - Stuart, did you write it?'

  It had taken her a few days
to summon the courage to accuse him, and he was prepared.

  'No,' he said.

  Perhaps it would have been more authentic to say yes, but he had preferred not to, and he did not see why he should have to justify himself.

  'You didn't?' she repeated, with no change of tone or expression.

  'No,' he repeated.

  'Because very, very few people know what Dad . . . what he worries about. '

  'Well, it wasn't me. '

  'The post went up the same evening that Dad and you had the row, and Dad hit - '

  'I've told you, I didn't do it. '

  'You know he's ill, Stuart. '

  'Yeah, so you keep telling me. '

  'I keep telling you because it's true! He can't help it - he's got a serious mental illness that causes him untold distress and misery. '

  Fats' mobile had beeped, and he had glanced down at a text from Andrew. He read it and experienced an air punch to the midriff: Arf leaving for good.

  'I'm talking to you, Stuart - '

  'I know - what?'

  'All these posts - Simon Price, Parminder, Dad - these are all people you know. If you're behind all this - '

  'I've told you, I'm not. '

  ' - you're causing untold damage. Serious, awful damage, Stuart, to people's lives. '

  Fats was trying to imagine life without Andrew. They had known each other since they were four.

  'It's not me,' he had said. )

  Serious, awful damage to people's lives.

  They had made their lives, Fats thought scornfully as he turned into Foley Road. The victims of the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother were mired in hypocrisy and lies, and they didn't like the exposure. They were stupid bugs running from bright light. They knew nothing about real life.

  He could see a house ahead that had a bald tyre lying on the grass in front of it. He had a strong suspicion that that was Krystal's, and when he saw the number, he knew he was right. He had never been here before. He would never have agreed to meet her at her home during the lunch hour a couple of weeks ago, but things changed. He had changed.

  They said that her mother was a prostitute. She was certainly a junkie. Krystal had told him that the house would be empty because her mother would be at Bellchapel Addiction Clinic, receiving her allotted amount of methadone. Fats walked up the garden path without slowing, but with unexpected trepidation.

  Krystal had been on the watch for him, from her bedroom window. She had closed the doors of every room downstairs, so that all he would see was the hall; she had thrown everything that had spilt into it back into the sitting room and kitchen. The carpet was gritty and burnt in places, and the wallpaper stained, but she could do nothing about that. There had been none of the pine-scented disinfectant left, but she had found some bleach and sloshed that around the kitchen and bathroom, both of them sources of the worst smells in the house.

  When he knocked, she ran downstairs. They did not have long; Terri would probably be back with Robbie at one. Not long to make a baby.

  'Hiya,' she said, when she opened the door.

  'All right?' said Fats, blowing out smoke through his nostrils.

  He did not know what he had expected. His first glimpse of the interior of the house was of a grimy bare box. There was no furniture. The closed doors to his left and ahead were strangely ominous.

  'Are we the only ones here?' he asked as he crossed the threshold.

  'Yeah,' said Krystal. 'We c'n go upstairs. My room. '

  She led the way. The deeper inside they went, the worse the smell became: mingled bleach and filth. Fats tried not to care. All doors were closed on the landing, except one. Krystal went inside.

  Fats did not want to be shocked, but there was nothing in the room except a mattress, which was covered with a sheet and a bare duvet, and a small pile of clothes heaped up in a corner. A few pictures ripped from tabloid newspapers were sellotaped to the wall; a mixture of pop stars and celebrities.

  Krystal had made her collage the previous day, in imitation of the one on Nikki's bedroom wall. Knowing that Fats was coming over, she had wanted to make the room more hospitable. She had drawn the thin curtains. They gave a blueish tinge to daylight.

  'Gimme a fag,' she said. 'I'm gasping. '

  He lit it for her. She was more nervous than he had ever seen her; he preferred her cocky and worldly.

  'We ain' got long,' she told him, and with the cigarette in her mouth, she began to strip. 'Me mum'll be back. '

  'Yeah, at Bellchapel, isn't she?' said Fats, somehow trying to harden Krystal up again in his mind.

  'Yeah,' said Krystal, sitting on the mattress and pulling off her tracksuit bottoms.

  'What if they close it?' asked Fats, taking off his blazer. 'I heard they're thinking about it. '

  'I dunno,' said Krystal, but she was frightened. Her mother's willpower, fragile and vulnerable as a fledgling chick, could fail at the slightest provocation.

  She had already stripped to her underwear. Fats was taking off his shoes when he noticed something nestled beside her heaped clothes: a small plastic jewellery box lying open, and curled inside, a familiar watch.

  'Is that my mum's?' he said, in surprise.

  'What?' Krystal panicked. 'No,' she lied. 'It was my Nana Cath's. Don't - !'

  But he had already pulled it out of the box.

  'It is hers,' he said. He recognized the strap.

  'It fuckin' ain't!'

  She was terrified. She had almost forgotten that she had stolen it, where it had come from. Fats was silent, and she did not like it.

  The watch in Fats' hand seemed to be both challenging and reproaching him. In quick succession he imagined walking out, slipping it casually into his pocket, or handing it back to Krystal with a shrug.

  'It's mine,' she said.

  He did not want to be a policeman. He wanted to be lawless. But it took the recollection that the watch had been Cubby's gift to make him hand it back to her and carry on taking off his clothes. Scarlet in the face, Krystal tugged off bra and pants and slipped, naked, beneath the duvet.

  Fats approached her in his boxer shorts, a wrapped condom in his hand.

  'We don' need that,' said Krystal thickly. 'I'm takin' the pill now. '

  'Are you?'

  She moved over on the mattress for him. Fats slid under the duvet. As he pulled off his boxers, he wondered whether she was lying about the pill, like the watch. But he had wanted to try without a condom for a while.

  'Go on,' she whispered, and she tugged the little foil square out of his hand and threw it on top of his blazer, crumpled on the floor.

  He imagined Krystal pregnant with his child; the faces of Tessa and Cubby when they heard. His kid in the Fields, his flesh and blood. It would be more than Cubby had ever managed.

  He climbed on top of her; this, he knew, was real life.