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The Casual Vacancy, Page 37

J. K. Rowling

Part Four Chapter IX



  The Yarvil and District Gazette erred on the side of caution in reporting what had been said during the most acrimonious Pagford Parish Council meeting in living memory. It made little difference; the bowdlerized report, augmented by the vivid eye-witness descriptions offered by all who had attended, still created widespread gossip. To make matters worse, a front-page story detailed the anonymous internet attacks in the dead man's name that had, to quote Alison Jenkins, 'caused considerable speculation and anger. See page four for full report. ' While the names of the accused and the details of their supposed misdemeanours were not given, the sight of 'serious allegations' and 'criminal activity' in newsprint disturbed Howard even more than the original posts.

  'We should have beefed up security on the site as soon as that first post appeared,' he said, addressing his wife and business partner from in front of his gas fire.

  Silent spring rain sprinkled the window, and the back lawn glistened with tiny red pinpricks of light. Howard was feeling shivery, and was hogging all the heat emanating from the fake coal. For several days, nearly every visitor to the delicatessen and the cafe had been gossiping about the anonymous posts, about the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother and about Parminder Jawanda's outburst at the council meeting. Howard hated the things that she had shouted being bandied about in public. For the first time in his life, he felt uncomfortable in his own shop, and concerned about his previously unassailable position in Pagford. The election for the replacement of Barry Fairbrother would take place the following day, and where Howard had felt sanguine and excited, he was worried and twitchy.

  'This has done a lot of damage. A lot of damage,' he repeated.

  His hand strayed to his belly to scratch, but he pulled it away, enduring the itch with a martyr's expression. He would not soon forget what Dr Jawanda had screamed to the council and the press. He and Shirley had already checked the details of the General Medical Council, gone to see Dr Crawford, and made a formal complaint. Parminder had not been seen at work since, so no doubt she was already regretting her outburst. Nevertheless, Howard could not rid himself of the sight of her expression as she screamed at him. It had shaken him to see such hatred on another human's face.

  'It'll all blow over,' said Shirley reassuringly.

  'I'm not so sure,' said Howard. 'I'm not so sure. It doesn't make us look good. The council. Rows in front of the press. We look divided. Aubrey says they're not happy, at District level. This whole thing's undermined our statement about the Fields. Squabbling in public, everything getting dirty . . . it doesn't look like the council's speaking for the town. '

  'But we are,' said Shirley, with a little laugh. 'Nobody in Pagford wants the Fields - hardly anyone. '

  'The article makes it look like our side went after pro-Fielders. Tried to intimidate them,' said Howard, succumbing to the temptation to scratch, and doing it fiercely. 'All right, Aubrey knows it wasn't any of our side, but that's not how that journalist made it look. And I'll tell you this: if Yarvil makes us look inept or dirty . . . they've been looking for a chance to take us over for years. '

  'That won't happen,' said Shirley at once. 'That couldn't happen. '

  'I thought it was over,' said Howard, ignoring his wife, and thinking of the Fields. 'I thought we'd done it. I thought we'd got rid of them. '

  The article over which he had spent so much time, explaining why the estate and the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic were drains and blots on Pagford, had been completely overshadowed by the scandals of Parminder's outburst, and the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother. Howard had completely forgotten now how much pleasure the accusations against Simon Price had given him, and that it had not occurred to him to remove them until Price's wife had asked.

  'District Council's emailed me,' he told Maureen, 'with a bunch of questions about the website. They want to hear what steps we've taken against defamation. They think the security's lax. '

  Shirley, who detected a personal reproof in all of this, said coldly, 'I've told you, I've taken care of it, Howard. '

  The nephew of friends of Howard and Shirley's had come round the previous day, while Howard was at work. The boy was halfway through a degree in computing. His recommendation to Shirley had been that they take down the immensely hackable website, bring in 'someone who knows what they're doing' and set up a new one.

  Shirley had understood barely one word in ten of the technical jargon that the young man had spewed at her. She knew that 'hack' meant to breach illegally, and when the student stopped talking his gibberish, she was left with the confused impression that the Ghost had somehow managed to find out people's passwords, maybe by questioning them cunningly in casual conversation.

  She had therefore emailed everybody to request that they change their password and make sure not to share the new one with anybody. This was what she meant by 'I've taken care of it'.

  As to the suggestion of closing down the site, of which she was guardian and curator, she had taken no steps, nor had she mentioned the idea to Howard. Shirley was afraid that a site containing all the security measures that the superior young man had suggested would be way beyond the scope of her managerial and technical skills. She was already stretched to the limits of her abilities, and she was determined to cling to the post of administrator.

  'If Miles is elected - ' Shirley began, but Maureen interrupted, in her deep voice. 'Let's hope it hasn't hurt him, this nasty stuff. Let's hope there isn't a backlash against him. '

  'People will know Miles had nothing to do with it,' said Shirley coolly.

  'Will they, though?' said Maureen, and Shirley simply hated her. How dare she sit in Shirley's lounge and contradict her? And what was worse, Howard was nodding his agreement with Maureen.

  'That's my worry,' he said, 'and we need Miles more than ever now. Get some cohesion back on the council. After Bends-Your-Ear said what she said - after all the uproar - we didn't even take the vote on Bellchapel. We need Miles. '

  Shirley had already walked out of the room in silent protest at Howard's siding with Maureen. She busied herself with the teacups in the kitchen, silently fuming, wondering why she did not set out only two cups to give Maureen the hint that she so richly deserved.

  Shirley continued to feel nothing but defiant admiration for the Ghost. His accusations had exposed the truth about people whom she disliked and despised, people who were destructive and wrong-headed. She was sure that the electorate of Pagford would see things her way and vote for Miles, rather than that disgusting man, Colin Wall.

  'When shall we go and vote?' Shirley asked Howard, re-entering the room with the tinkling tea tray, and pointedly ignoring Maureen (for it was their son whose name they would tick on the ballot).

  But to her intense irritation, Howard suggested that all three of them go after closing time.

  Miles Mollison was quite as concerned as his father that the unprecedented ill-humour surrounding next day's vote would affect his electoral chances. That very morning he had entered the newsagent's behind the Square and caught a snatch of conversation between the woman behind the till and her elderly customer.

  '. . . Mollison's always thought he was king of Pagford,' the old man was saying, oblivious to the wooden expression on the shopkeeper's face. 'I liked Barry Fairbrother. Tragedy, that was. Tragedy. The Mollison boy did our wills and I thought he was very pleased with himself. '

  Miles had lost his nerve at that and slipped back out of the shop, his face glowing like a schoolboy's. He wondered whether the well-spoken old man was the originator of that anonymous letter. Miles' comfortable belief in his own likeability was shaken, and he kept trying to imagine how it would feel if nobody voted for him the following day.

  As he undressed for bed that night, he watched his silent wife's reflection in the dressing-table mirror. For days, Samantha had been nothing but sarcastic if he mentioned the election. He could have done with some support
, some comfort, this evening. He also felt randy. It had been a long time. Thinking back, he supposed that it had been the night before Barry Fairbrother dropped dead. She had been a little bit drunk. It often took a little bit of drink, these days.

  'How was work?' he asked, watching her undo her bra in the mirror.

  Samantha did not answer immediately. She rubbed the deep red grooves in the flesh beneath her arms left by the tight bra, then said, without looking at Miles, 'I've been meaning to talk to you about that, actually. '

  She hated having to say it. She had been trying to avoid doing so for several weeks.

  'Roy thinks I ought to close the shop. It's not doing well. '

  Exactly how badly the shop was doing would be a shock to Miles. It had been a shock to her, when her accountant had laid out the position in the baldest terms. She had both known and not known. It was strange how your brain could know what your heart refused to accept.

  'Oh,' said Miles. 'But you'd keep the website?'

  'Yeah,' she said. 'We'd keep the website. '

  'Well, that's good,' said Miles encouragingly. He waited for almost a minute, out of respect for the death of her shop. Then he said, 'I don't suppose you saw the Gazette today?'

  She reached over for the nightdress on her pillow and he had a satisfying glimpse of her breasts. Sex would definitely help relax him.

  'It's a real shame, Sam,' he said, crawling across the bed behind her, and waiting to put his arms around her as she wriggled into the nightdress. 'About the shop. It was a great little place. And you've had it, what - ten years?'

  'Fourteen,' said Samantha.

  She knew what he wanted. She considered telling him to go and screw himself, and decamping to the spare room, but the trouble was that there would then be a row and an atmosphere, and what she wanted more than anything in the world was to be able to head off to London with Libby in two days' time, wearing the T-shirts that she had bought them both, and to be within close proximity of Jake and his band mates for a whole evening. This excursion constituted the entire sum of Samantha's current happiness. What was more, sex might assuage Miles' continuing annoyance that she was missing Howard's birthday party.

  So she let him embrace and then kiss her. She closed her eyes, climbed on top of him, and imagined herself riding Jake on a deserted white beach, nineteen years old to his twenty-one. She came while imagining Miles watching them, furiously, through binoculars, from a distant pedalo.