The casual vacancy, p.54
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       The Casual Vacancy, p.54

           J. K. Rowling
Part Six Chapter I


  Weaknesses of Voluntary Bodies

  22. 23 . . . The main weaknesses of such bodies are that they are hard to launch, liable to disintegrate . . .

  Charles Arnold-Baker

  Local Council Administration,

  Seventh Edition


  Many, many times had Colin Wall imagined the police coming to his door. They arrived, at last, at dusk on Sunday evening: a woman and a man, not to arrest Colin, but to look for his son.

  A fatal accident and 'Stuart, is it?' was a witness. 'Is he at home?'

  'No,' said Tessa, 'oh, dear God . . . Robbie Weedon . . . but he lives in the Fields . . . why was he here?'

  The policewoman explained, kindly, what they believed to have happened. 'The teenagers took their eye off him' was the phrase she used.

  Tessa thought she might faint.

  'You don't know where Stuart is?' asked the policeman.

  'No,' said Colin, gaunt and shadow-eyed. 'Where was he last seen?'

  'When our colleague pulled up, Stuart seems to have, ah, run away. '

  'Oh, dear God,' said Tessa again.

  'He's not answering,' said Colin calmly; he had already dialled Fats on his mobile. 'We'll need to go and look for him. '

  Colin had rehearsed for calamity all his life. He was ready. He took down his coat.

  'I'll try Arf,' said Tessa, running to the telephone.

  Isolated above the little town, no news of the calamities had yet reached Hilltop House. Andrew's mobile rang in the kitchen.

  ''Lo,' he said, his mouth full of toast.

  'Andy, it's Tessa Wall. Is Stu with you?'

  'No,' he said. 'Sorry. '

  But he was not at all sorry that Fats was not with him.

  'Something's happened, Andy. Stu was down at the river with Krystal Weedon, and she had her little brother with her, and the boy's drowned. Stu's run - run off somewhere. Can you think where he might be?'

  'No,' said Andrew automatically, because that was his and Fats' code. Never tell the parents.

  But the horror of what she had just told him crept through the phone like a clammy fog. Everything was suddenly less clear, less certain. She was about to hang up.

  'Wait, Mrs Wall,' he said. 'I might know . . . there's a place down by the river . . . '

  'I don't think he'd go near the river now,' said Tessa.

  Seconds flicked by, and Andrew was more and more convinced that Fats was in the Cubby Hole.

  'It's the only place I can think of,' he said.

  'Tell me where - '

  'I'd have to show you. '

  'I'll be there in ten minutes,' she shouted.

  Colin was already patrolling the streets of Pagford on foot. Tessa drove the Nissan up the winding hill road, and found Andrew waiting for her on the corner, where he usually caught the bus. He directed her down through the town. The street lights were feeble by twilight.

  They parked by the trees where Andrew usually threw down Simon's racing bike. Tessa got out of the car and followed Andrew to the edge of the water, puzzled and frightened.

  'He's not here,' she said.

  'It's along there,' said Andrew, pointing at the sheer dark face of Pargetter Hill, running straight down to the river with barely a lip of bank before the rushing water.

  'What do you mean?' asked Tessa, horrified.

  Andrew had known from the first that she would not be able to come with him, short and dumpy as she was.

  'I'll go and see,' he said. 'If you wait here. '

  'But it's too dangerous!' she cried over the roar of the powerful river.

  Ignoring her, he reached for the familiar hand and footholds. As he inched away along the tiny ledge, the same thought came to both of them; that Fats might have fallen, or jumped, into the river thundering so close to Andrew's feet.

  Tessa remained at the water's edge until she could not make Andrew out any longer, then turned away, trying not to cry in case Stuart was there, and she needed to talk to him calmly. For the first time, she wondered where Krystal was. The police had not said, and her terror for Fats had obliterated every other concern . . .

  Please God, let me find Stuart, she prayed. Let me find Stuart, please, God.

  Then she pulled her mobile from her cardigan pocket and called Kay Bawden.

  'I don't know whether you've heard,' she shouted, over the rushing water, and she told Kay the story.

  'But I'm not her social worker any more,' said Kay.

  Twenty feet away, Andrew had reached the Cubby Hole. It was pitch black; he had never been here this late. He swung himself inside.


  He heard something move at the back of the hole.

  'Fats? You there?'

  'Got a light, Arf?' said an unrecognizable voice. 'I dropped my bloody matches. '

  Andrew thought of shouting out to Tessa, but she did not know how long it took to reach the Cubby Hole. She could wait a few more moments.

  He passed over his lighter. By its flickering flame, Andrew saw that his friend's appearance was almost as changed as his voice. Fats' eyes were swollen; his whole face looked puffy.

  The flame went out. Fats' cigarette tip glowed bright in the darkness.

  'Is he dead? Her brother?'

  Andrew had not realized that Fats did not know.

  'Yeah,' he said, and then he added, 'I think so. That's what I - what I heard. '

  There was a silence, and then a soft, piglet-like squeal reached him through the darkness.

  'Mrs Wall,' yelled Andrew, sticking his head out of the hole as far as it would go, so that he could not hear Fats' sobs over the sound of the river. 'Mrs Wall, he's here!'