The casual vacancy, p.49
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       The Casual Vacancy, p.49

           J. K. Rowling
Part Five Chapter XI



  Howard had told Shirley that he did not feel well, that he thought he had better stay in bed and rest, and that the Copper Kettle could run without him for an afternoon.

  'I'll call Mo,' he said.

  'No, I'll call her,' said Shirley sharply.

  As she closed the bedroom door on him, Shirley thought, He's using his heart.

  He had said, 'Don't be silly, Shirl', and then, 'It's rubbish, bloody rubbish', and she had not pressed him. Years of genteel avoidance of grisly topics (Shirley had been literally struck dumb when twenty-three-year-old Patricia had said: 'I'm gay, Mum. ') seemed to have muzzled something inside her.

  The doorbell rang. Lexie said, 'Dad told me to come round here. He and Mum have got something to do. Where's Grandad?'

  'In bed,' said Shirley. 'He overdid it a bit last night. '

  'It was a good party, wasn't it?' said Lexie.

  'Yes, lovely,' said Shirley, with a tempest building inside her.

  After a while, her granddaughter's prattling wore Shirley down.

  'Let's have lunch at the cafe,' she suggested. 'Howard,' she called through the closed bedroom door, 'I'm taking Lexie for lunch at the Copper Kettle. '

  He sounded worried, and she was glad. She was not afraid of Maureen. She would look Maureen right in the face . . .

  But it occurred to Shirley, as she walked, that Howard might have telephoned Maureen the moment she had left the bungalow. She was so stupid . . . somehow, she had thought that, in calling Maureen herself about Howard's illness, she had stopped them communicating . . . she was forgetting . . .

  The familiar, well-loved streets seemed different, strange. She had taken a regular inventory of the window she presented to this lovely little world: wife and mother, hospital volunteer, secretary to the Parish Council, First Citizeness; and Pagford had been her mirror, reflecting, in its polite respect, her value and her worth. But the Ghost had taken a rubber stamp and smeared across the pristine surface of her life a revelation that would nullify it all: 'her husband was sleeping with his business partner, and she never knew . . . '

  It would be all that anyone said, when she was mentioned; all that they ever remembered about her.

  She pushed open the door of the cafe; the bell tinkled, and Lexie said, 'There's Peanut Price. '

  'Howard all right?' croaked Maureen.

  'Just tired,' said Shirley, moving smoothly to a table and sitting down, her heart beating so fast that she wondered whether she might have a coronary herself.

  'Tell him neither of the girls has turned up,' said Maureen crossly, lingering by their table, 'and neither of them bothered to call in either. It's lucky we're not busy. '

  Lexie went to the counter to talk to Andrew, who had been put on waiter duty. Conscious of her unusual solitude, as she sat alone at the table, Shirley remembered Mary Fairbrother, erect and gaunt at Barry's funeral, widowhood draped around her like a queen's train; the pity, the admiration. In losing her husband, Mary had become the silent passive recipient of admiration, whereas she, shackled to a man who had betrayed her, was cloaked in grubbiness, a target of derision . . .

  (Long ago, in Yarvil, men had subjected Shirley to smutty jokes because of her mother's reputation, even though she, Shirley, had been as pure as it was possible to be. )

  'Grandad's feeling ill,' Lexie was telling Andrew. 'What's in those cakes?'

  He bent down behind the counter, hiding his red face.

  I snogged your mum.

  Andrew had almost skived off work. He had been afraid that Howard might sack him on the spot for kissing his daughter-in-law, and was downright terrified that Miles Mollison might storm in, looking for him. At the same time, he was not so naive that he did not know that Samantha, who must, he thought ruthlessly, be well over forty, would figure as the villain of the piece. His defence was simple. 'She was pissed and she grabbed me. '

  There was a tiny glimmer of pride in his embarrassment. He had been anxious to see Gaia; he wanted to tell her that a grown woman had pounced on him. He had hoped that they might laugh about it, the way that they laughed about Maureen, but that she might be secretly impressed; and also that in the course of laughing, he might find out exactly what she had done with Fats; how far she had let him go. He was prepared to forgive her. She had been pissed too. But she had not turned up.

  He went to fetch a napkin for Lexie and almost collided with his boss's wife, who was standing behind the counter, holding his EpiPen.

  'Howard wanted me to check something,' Shirley told him. 'And this needle shouldn't be kept in here. I'll put it in the back. '