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The Casual Vacancy, Page 36

J. K. Rowling

Part Four Chapter VIII



  At half-past six that evening, Howard and Shirley Mollison entered Pagford Church Hall. Shirley was carrying an armful of papers and Howard was wearing the chain of office decorated with the blue and white Pagford crest.

  The floorboards creaked beneath Howard's massive weight as he moved to the head of the scratched tables that had already been set end to end. Howard was almost as fond of this hall as he was of his own shop. The Brownies used it on Tuesdays, and the Women's Institute on Wednesdays. It had hosted jumble sales and Jubilee celebrations, wedding receptions and wakes, and it smelt of all of these things: of stale clothes and coffee urns, and the ghosts of home-baked cakes and meat salads; of dust and human bodies; but primarily of aged wood and stone. Beaten-brass lights hung from the rafters on thick black flexes, and the kitchen was reached through ornate mahogany doors.

  Shirley bustled from place to place, setting out papers. She adored council meetings. Quite apart from the pride and enjoyment she derived from listening to Howard chair them, Maureen was necessarily absent; with no official role, she had to be content with the pickings Shirley deigned to share.

  Howard's fellow councillors arrived singly and in pairs. He boomed out greetings, his voice echoing from the rafters. The full complement of sixteen councillors rarely attended; he was expecting twelve of them today.

  The table was half full when Aubrey Fawley arrived, walking, as he always did, as if into a high wind, with an air of reluctant forcefulness, slightly stooped, his head bowed.

  'Aubrey!' called Howard joyfully, and for the first time he moved forward to greet the newcomer. 'How are you? How's Julia? Did you get my invitation?'

  'Sorry, I don't - '

  'To my sixty-fifth? Here - Saturday - day after the election. '

  'Oh, yes, yes. Howard, there's a young woman outside - she says she's from the Yarvil and District Gazette. Alison something?'

  'Oh,' said Howard. 'Strange. I've just sent her my article, you know, the one answering Fairbrother's . . . Maybe it's something to do . . . I'll go and see. '

  He waddled away, full of vague misgivings. Parminder Jawanda entered as he approached the door; scowling as usual, she walked straight past without greeting him, and for once Howard did not ask 'how's Parminder?'.

  Out on the pavement he found a young blonde woman, stocky and square, with an aura of impermeable cheerfulness that Howard recognized immediately as determination of his own brand. She was holding a notebook and looking up at the Sweetlove initials carved over the double doors.

  'Hello, hello,' said Howard, his breathing a little laboured. 'Alison, is it? Howard Mollison. Have you come all this way to tell me I can't write for toffee?'

  She beamed, and shook the hand he proffered.

  'Oh, no, we like the article,' she assured him. 'I thought, as things are getting so interesting, I'd come and sit in on the meeting. You don't mind? Press are allowed, I think. I've looked up all the regulations. '

  She was moving towards the door as she spoke.

  'Yes, yes, press are allowed,' said Howard, following her and pausing courteously at the entrance to let her through first. 'Unless we have to deal with anything in camera, that is. '

  She glanced back at him, and he could make out her teeth, even in the fading light.

  'Like all those anonymous accusations on your message board? From the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother?'

  'Oh dear,' wheezed Howard, smiling back at her. 'They're not news, surely? A couple of silly comments on the internet?'

  'Has it only been a couple? Somebody told me the bulk of them had been taken off the site. '

  'No, no, somebody's got that wrong,' said Howard. 'There have only been two or three, to my knowledge. Nasty nonsense. Personally,' he said, improvising on the spot, 'I think it's some kid. '

  'A kid?'

  'You know. Teenager having fun. '

  'Would teenagers target Parish councillors?' she asked, still smiling. 'I heard, actually, that one of the victims has lost his job. Possibly as a result of the allegations made against him on your site. '

  'News to me,' said Howard untruthfully. Shirley had seen Ruth at the hospital the previous day and reported back to him.

  'I see on the agenda,' said Alison, as the pair of them entered the brightly lit hall, 'that you'll be discussing Bellchapel. You and Mr Fairbrother made good points on both sides of the argument in your articles . . . we had quite a few letters to the paper after we printed Mr Fairbrother's piece. My editor liked that. Anything that makes people write letters . . . '

  'Yes, I saw those,' said Howard. 'Nobody seemed to have much good to say about the clinic, did they?'

  The councillors at the table were watching the pair of them. Alison Jenkins returned their gaze, still smiling imperturbably.

  'Let me get you a chair,' said Howard, puffing slightly as he lifted one down from a nearby stack and settling Alison some twelve feet from the table.

  'Thank you. ' She pulled it six feet forward.

  'Ladies and gentlemen,' called Howard, 'we've got a press gallery here tonight. Miss Alison Jenkins of the Yarvil and District Gazette. '

  A few of them seemed interested and gratified by Alison's appearance, but most looked suspicious. Howard stumped back to the head of the table, where Aubrey and Shirley were questioning him with their eyes.

  'Barry Fairbrother's Ghost,' he told them in an undertone, as he lowered himself gingerly into the plastic chair (one of them had collapsed under him two meetings ago). 'And Bellchapel. And there's Tony!' he shouted, making Aubrey jump. 'Come on in, Tony . . . we'll give Henry and Sheila another couple of minutes, shall we?'

  The murmur of talk around the table was slightly more subdued than usual. Alison Jenkins was already writing in her notebook. Howard thought angrily, This is all bloody Fairbrother's fault. He was the one who had invited the press in. For a split second, Howard thought of Barry and the Ghost as one and the same, a troublemaker alive and dead.

  Like Shirley, Parminder had brought a stack of papers with her to the meeting, and these were piled up underneath the agenda she was pretending to read so that she did not have to speak to anybody. In reality, she was thinking about the woman sitting almost directly behind her. The Yarvil and District Gazette had written about Catherine Weedon's collapse, and the family's complaints against their GP. Parminder had not been named, but doubtless the journalist knew who she was. Perhaps Alison had got wind of the anonymous post about Parminder on the Parish Council website too.

  Calm down. You're getting like Colin.

  Howard was already taking apologies and asking for revisions to the last set of minutes, but Parminder could barely hear over the sound of her own blood thudding in her ears.

  'Now, unless anybody's got any objections,' said Howard, 'we're going to deal with items eight and nine first, because District Councillor Fawley's got news on both, and he can't stay long - '

  'Got until eight thirty,' said Aubrey, checking his watch.

  ' - yes, so unless there are objections - no? - floor's yours, Aubrey. '

  Aubrey stated the position simply and without emotion. There was a new boundary review coming and, for the first time, there was an appetite beyond Pagford to reassign the Fields to Yarvil. Absorbing Pagford's relatively small costs seemed worthwhile to those who hoped to add anti-government votes to Yarvil's tally, where they might make a difference, as opposed to being wasted in Pagford, which had been a safe Conservative seat since the 1950s. The whole thing could be done under the guise of simplifying and streamlining: Yarvil provided almost all services for the place as it was.

  Aubrey concluded by saying that it would be helpful, should Pagford wish to cut the estate away, for the town to express its wishes for the benefit of the District Council.

  '. . . a good, clear message from you,' he said, 'and I really think that this time - '

  'It's neve
r worked before,' said a farmer, to muttered agreement.

  'Well, now, John, we've never been invited to state our position before,' said Howard.

  'Shouldn't we decide what our position is, before we declare it publicly?' asked Parminder, in an icy voice.

  'All right,' said Howard blandly. 'Would you like to kick off, Dr Jawanda?'

  'I don't know how many people saw Barry's article in the Gazette,' said Parminder. Every face was turned towards her, and she tried not to think about the anonymous post or the journalist sitting behind her. 'I thought it made the arguments for keeping the Fields part of Pagford very well. '

  Parminder saw Shirley, who was writing busily, give her pen a tiny smile.

  'By telling us the likes of Krystal Weedon benefit?' said an elderly woman called Betty, from the end of the table. Parminder had always detested her.

  'By reminding us that people living in the Fields are part of our community too,' she answered.

  'They think of themselves as from Yarvil,' said the farmer. 'Always have. '

  'I remember,' said Betty, 'when Krystal Weedon pushed another child into the river on a nature walk. '

  'No, she didn't,' said Parminder angrily, 'my daughter was there - that was two boys who were fighting - anyway - '

  'I heard it was Krystal Weedon,' said Betty.

  'You heard wrong,' said Parminder, except that she did not say it, she shouted it.

  They were shocked. She had shocked herself. The echo hummed off the old walls. Parminder could barely swallow; she kept her head down, staring at the agenda, and heard John's voice from a long way off.

  'Barry would've done better to talk about himself, not that girl. He got a lot out of St Thomas's. '

  'Trouble is, for every Barry,' said another woman, 'you get a load of yobs. '

  'They're Yarvil people, bottom line,' said a man, 'they belong to Yarvil. '

  'That's not true,' said Parminder, keeping her voice deliberately low, but they all fell silent to listen to her, waiting for her to shout again. 'It's simply not true. Look at the Weedons. That was the whole point of Barry's article. They were a Pagford family going back years, but - '

  'They moved to Yarvil!' said Betty.

  'There was no housing here,' said Parminder, fighting her own temper, 'none of you wanted a new development on the outskirts of town. '

  'You weren't here, I'm sorry,' said Betty, pink in the face, looking ostentatiously away from Parminder. 'You don't know the history. '

  Talk had become general: the meeting had broken into several little knots of conversation, and Parminder could not make out any of it. Her throat was tight and she did not dare meet anyone's eyes.

  'Shall we have a show of hands?' Howard shouted down the table, and silence fell again. 'Those in favour of telling the District Council that Pagford will be happy for the parish boundary to be redrawn, to take the Fields out of our jurisdiction?'

  Parminder's fists were clenched in her lap and the nails of both her hands were embedded in their palms. There was a rustle of sleeves all around her.

  'Excellent!' said Howard, and the jubilation in his voice rang triumphantly from the rafters. 'Well, I'll draft something with Tony and Helen and we'll send it round for everyone to see, and we'll get it off. Excellent!'

  A couple of councillors clapped. Parminder's vision blurred and she blinked hard. The agenda swam in and out of focus. The silence went on so long that finally she looked up: Howard, in his excitement, had had recourse to his inhaler, and most of the councillors were watching solicitously.

  'All right, then,' wheezed Howard, putting the inhaler away again, red in the face and beaming, 'unless anyone's got anything else to add -' an infinitesimal pause '- item nine. Bellchapel. And Aubrey's got something to tell us here too. '

  Barry wouldn't have let it happen. He'd have argued. He'd have made John laugh and vote with us. He ought to have written about himself, not Krystal . . . I've let him down.

  'Thank you, Howard,' said Aubrey, as the blood pounded in Parminder's ears, and she dug her nails still more deeply into her palms. 'As you know, we're having to make some pretty drastic cuts at District level . . . '

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

  '. . . and one of the projects we've got to look at is Bellchapel,' said Aubrey. 'I thought I'd have a word, because, as you all know, it's the Parish that owns the building - '

  ' - and the lease is almost up,' said Howard. 'That's right. '

  'But nobody else is interested in that old place, are they?' asked a retired accountant from the end of the table. 'It's in a bad state, from what I've heard. '

  'Oh, I'm sure we could find a new tenant,' said Howard comfortably, 'but that's not really the issue. The point is whether we think the clinic is doing a good - '

  'That's not the point at all,' said Parminder, cutting across him. 'It isn't the Parish Council's job to decide whether or not the clinic's doing a good job. We don't fund their work. They're not our responsibility. '

  'But we own the building,' said Howard, still smiling, still polite, 'so I think it's natural for us to want to consider - '

  'If we're going to look at information on the clinic's work, I think it's very important that we get a balanced picture,' said Parminder.

  'I'm terribly sorry,' said Shirley, blinking down the table at Parminder, 'but could you try not to interrupt the Chair, Dr Jawanda? It's awfully difficult to take notes if people talk over other people. And now I've interrupted,' she added with a smile. 'Sorry!'

  'I presume the Parish wants to keep getting revenue from the building,' said Parminder, ignoring Shirley. 'And we have no other potential tenant lined up, as far as I know. So I'm wondering why we are even considering terminating the clinic's lease. '

  'They don't cure them,' said Betty. 'They just give them more drugs. I'd be very happy to see them out. '

  'We're having to make some very difficult decisions at District Council level,' said Aubrey Fawley. 'The government's looking for more than a billion in savings from local government. We cannot continue to provide services the way we have done. That's the reality. '

  Parminder hated the way that her fellow councillors acted around Aubrey, drinking in his deep modulated voice, nodding gently as he talked. She was well aware that some of them called her 'Bends-Your-Ear'.

  'Research indicates that illegal drug use increases during recessions,' said Parminder.

  'It's their choice,' said Betty. 'Nobody makes them take drugs. '

  She looked around the table for support. Shirley smiled at her.

  'We're having to make some tough choices,' said Aubrey.

  'So you've got together with Howard,' Parminder talked over him, 'and decided that you can give the clinic a little push by forcing them out of the building. '

  'I can think of better ways to spend money than on a bunch of criminals,' said the accountant.

  'I'd cut off all their benefits, personally,' said Betty.

  'I was invited to this meeting to put you all in the picture about what's happening at District level,' said Aubrey calmly. 'Nothing more than that, Dr Jawanda. '

  'Helen,' said Howard loudly, pointing to another councillor, whose hand was raised, and who had been trying to make her views heard for a minute.

  Parminder heard nothing of what the woman said. She had quite forgotten about the stack of papers lying underneath her agenda, on which Kay Bawden had spent so much time: the statistics, the profiles of successful cases, the explanation of the benefits of methadone as against heroin; studies showing the cost, financial and social, of heroin addiction. Everything around her had become slightly liquid, unreal; she knew that she was going to erupt as she had never erupted in her life, and there was no room to regret it, or to prevent it, or do anything except watch it happen; it was too late, far too late . . .

  '. . . culture of entitlement,' said
Aubrey Fawley. 'People who have literally not worked a day in their lives. '

  'And, let's face it,' said Howard, 'this is a problem with a simple solution. Stop taking the drugs. '

  He turned, smiling and conciliating, to Parminder. 'They call it "cold turkey", isn't that right, Dr Jawanda?'

  'Oh, you think that they should take responsibility for their addiction and change their behaviour?' said Parminder.

  'In a nutshell, yes. '

  'Before they cost the state any more money. '

  'Exact - '

  'And you,' said Parminder loudly, as the silent eruption engulfed her, 'do you know how many tens of thousands of pounds you, Howard Mollison, have cost the health service, because of your total inability to stop gorging yourself?'

  A rich, red claret stain was spreading up Howard's neck into his cheeks.

  'Do you know how much your bypass cost, and your drugs, and your long stay in hospital? And the doctor's appointments you take up with your asthma and your blood pressure and the nasty skin rash, which are all caused by your refusal to lose weight?'

  As Parminder's voice became a scream, other councillors began to protest on Howard's behalf; Shirley was on her feet; Parminder was still shouting, clawing together the papers that had somehow been scattered as she gesticulated.

  'What about patient confidentiality?' shouted Shirley. 'Outrageous! Absolutely outrageous!'

  Parminder was at the door of the hall and striding through it, and she heard, over her own furious sobs, Betty calling for her immediate expulsion from the council; she was half running away from the hall, and she knew that she had done something cataclysmic, and she wanted nothing more than to be swallowed up by the darkness and to disappear for ever.