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The Casual Vacancy, Page 44

J. K. Rowling

Part Five Chapter VI



  Shirley showered and pulled clothes out of the wardrobe while Howard slept noisily on. The church bell of St Michael and All Saints, ringing for ten o'clock matins, reached her as she buttoned up her cardigan. She always thought how loud it must be for the Jawandas, living right opposite, and hoped that it struck them as a loud proclamation of Pagford's adherence to the old ways and traditions of which they, so conspicuously, were not a part.

  Automatically, because it was what she so often did, Shirley walked along the hall, turned into Patricia's old bedroom and sat down at the computer.

  Patricia ought to be here, sleeping on the sofa-bed that Shirley had made up for her. It was a relief not to have to deal with her this morning. Howard, who had still been humming 'The Green, Green Grass of Home' when they arrived at Ambleside in the early hours, had not realized that Patricia was absent until Shirley had had the key in the front door.

  'Where's Pat?' he had wheezed, leaning against the porch.

  'Oh, she was upset that Melly didn't want to come,' sighed Shirley. 'They had a row or something . . . I expect she's gone home to try and patch things up. '

  'Never a dull moment,' said Howard, bouncing lightly off alternate walls of the narrow hallway as he navigated his way carefully towards the bedroom.

  Shirley brought up her favourite medical website. When she typed in the first letter of the condition she wished to investigate, the site offered its explanation of EpiPens again, so Shirley swiftly revised their use and content, because she might yet have an opportunity to save their potboy's life. Next, she carefully typed in 'eczema', and learned, somewhat to her disappointment, that the condition was not infectious, and could not, therefore, be used as an excuse to sack Sukhvinder Jawanda.

  From sheer force of habit, she then typed in the address of the Pagford Parish Council website, and clicked onto the message board.

  She had grown to recognize at a glance the shape and length of the user name The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother, just as a besotted lover knows at once the back of their beloved's head, or the set of their shoulders, or the tilt of their walk.

  A single glimpse at the topmost message sufficed: excitement exploded; he had not forsaken her. She had known that Dr Jawanda's outburst could not go unpunished.

  Affair of the First Citizen of Pagford

  She read it, but did not, at first, understand: she had been expecting to see Parminder's name. She read it again, and gave the suffocated gasp of a woman being hit by icy water.

  Howard Mollison, First Citizen of Pagford, and long-standing resident Maureen Lowe have been more than business partners for many years. It is common knowledge that Maureen holds regular tastings of Howard's finest salami. The only person who appears not to be in on the secret is Shirley, Howard's wife.

  Completely motionless in her chair, Shirley thought: it's not true.

  It could not be true.

  Yes, she had once or twice suspected . . . had hinted, sometimes, to Howard . . .

  No, she would not believe it. She could not believe it.

  But other people would. They would believe the Ghost. Everybody believed him.

  Her hands were like empty gloves, fumbling and feeble, as she tried, with many a blunder, to remove the message from the site. Every second that it remained there, somebody else might be reading it, believing it, laughing about it, passing it to the local newspaper . . . Howard and Maureen, Howard and Maureen . . .

  The message was gone. Shirley sat and stared at the computer monitor, her thoughts scurrying like mice in a glass bowl, trying to escape, but there was no way out, no firm foothold, no way of climbing back to the happy place she had occupied before she saw that dreadful thing, written in public for the world to see . . .

  He had laughed at Maureen.

  No, she had laughed at Maureen. Howard had laughed at Kenneth.

  Always together: holidays and workdays and weekend excursions . . .

  . . . only person who appears not to be in on the secret . . .

  . . . she and Howard did not need sex: separate beds for years, they had a silent understanding . . .

  . . . holds regular tastings of Howard's finest salami . . .

  (Shirley's mother was alive in the room with her: cackling and jeering, a glass slopping wine . . . Shirley could not bear dirty laughter. She had never been able to bear ribaldry or ridicule. )

  She jumped up, tripping over the chair legs, and hurried back to the bedroom. Howard was still asleep, lying on his back, making rumbling, porcine noises.

  'Howard,' she said. 'Howard. '

  It took a whole minute to rouse him. He was confused and disorientated, but as she stood over him, she saw him still as a knight protector who could save her.

  'Howard, the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother's put up another message. '

  Disgruntled at his rude awakening, Howard made a growling groaning noise into the pillow.

  'About you,' said Shirley.

  They did very little plain speaking, she and Howard. She had always liked that. But today she was driven to it.

  'About you,' she repeated, 'and Maureen. It says you've been - having an affair. '

  His big hand slid up over his face and he rubbed his eyes. He rubbed them longer, she was convinced, than he needed.

  'What?' he said, his face shielded.

  'You and Maureen, having an affair. '

  'Where's he get that from?'

  No denial, no outrage, no scathing laughter. Merely a cautious request for a source.

  Ever afterwards, Shirley would remember this moment as a death; a life truly ended.