The casual vacancy, p.55
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       The Casual Vacancy, p.55

           J. K. Rowling
Part Six Chapter II



  The policewoman had been gentle and kind, in the cluttered cottage by the river, where dank water now covered blankets, chintzy chairs and worn rugs. The old lady who owned the place had brought a hot-water bottle and a cup of boiling tea, which Sukhvinder could not lift because she was shaking like a drill. She had disgorged chunks of information: her own name, and Krystal's name, and the name of the dead little boy that they were loading onto an ambulance. The dog-walker who had pulled her from the river was rather deaf; he gave a statement to the police in the next room, and Sukhvinder hated the sound of his bellowed account. He had tethered his dog to a tree outside the window, and it whined persistently.

  Then the police had called her parents and they had come, Parminder knocking over a table and smashing one of the old lady's ornaments as she crossed the room with clean clothes in her arms. In the tiny bathroom, the deep dirty gash on Sukhvinder's leg was revealed, peppering the fluffy bath mat with black spots, and when Parminder saw the wound she shrieked at Vikram, who was thanking everyone loudly in the hall, that they must take Sukhvinder to the hospital.

  She had vomited again in the car, and her mother, who was beside her in the back seat, had mopped her up, and all the way there Parminder and Vikram had kept up a flow of loud talk; her father kept repeating himself, saying things like 'she'll need a sedative' and 'that cut will definitely need stitches'; and Parminder, who was in the back seat with the shaking and retching Sukhvinder, kept saying, 'You might have died. You might have died. '

  It was as if she was still underwater. Sukhvinder was somewhere she could not breathe. She tried to cut through it all, to be heard.

  'Does Krystal know he's dead?' she asked through chattering teeth, and Parminder had to ask her to repeat the question several times.

  'I don't know,' she answered at last. 'You might have died, Jolly. '

  At the hospital, they made her undress again, but this time her mother was with her in the curtained cubicle, and she realized her mistake too late when she saw the expression of horror on Parminder's face.

  'My God,' she said, grabbing Sukhvinder's forearm. 'My God. What have you done to yourself?'

  Sukhvinder had no words, so she allowed herself to subside into tears and uncontrollable shaking, and Vikram shouted at everyone, including Parminder, to leave her alone, but also to damn well hurry up, and that her cut needed cleaning and she needed stitches and sedatives and X-rays . . .

  Later, they put her in a bed with a parent on each side of her, and both of them stroked her hands. She was warm and numb, and there was no pain in her leg any more. The sky beyond the windows was dark.

  'Howard Mollison's had another heart attack,' she heard her mother tell her father. 'Miles wanted me to go to him. '

  'Bloody nerve,' said Vikram.

  To Sukhvinder's drowsy surprise, they talked no more about Howard Mollison. They merely continued to stroke her hands until, shortly afterwards, she fell asleep.

  On the far side of the building, in a shabby blue room with plastic chairs and a fish tank in the corner, Miles and Samantha were sitting on either side of Shirley, waiting for news from theatre. Miles was still wearing his slippers.

  'I can't believe Parminder Jawanda wouldn't come,' he said for the umpteenth time, his voice cracking. Samantha got up, moved past Shirley, and put her arms around Miles, kissing his thick hair, speckled with grey, breathing in his familiar smell.

  Shirley said, in a high, strangled voice, 'I'm not surprised she wouldn't come. I'm not surprised. Absolutely appalling. '

  All she had left of her old life and her old certainties was attacking familiar targets. Shock had taken almost everything from her: she no longer knew what to believe, or even what to hope. The man in theatre was not the man she had thought she had married. If she could have returned to that happy place of certainty, before she had read that awful post . . .

  Perhaps she ought to shut down the whole website. Take away the message boards in their entirety. She was afraid that the Ghost might come back, that he might say the awful thing again . . .

  She wanted to go home, right now and disable the website; and while there, she could destroy the EpiPen once and for all . . .

  He saw it . . . I know he saw it . . .

  But I'd never have done it, really. I wouldn't have done it. I was upset. I'd never have done it . . .

  What if Howard survived, and his first words were: 'She ran out of the room when she saw me. She didn't call an ambulance straight away. She was holding a big needle . . . '

  Then I'll say his brain's been affected, Shirley thought defiantly.

  And if he died . . .

  Beside her, Samantha was hugging Miles. Shirley did not like it; she ought to be the centre of attention; it was her husband who was lying upstairs, fighting for his life. She had wanted to be like Mary Fairbrother, cosseted and admired, a tragic heroine. This was not how she had imagined it -


  Ruth Price, in her nurse's uniform, had come hurrying into the room, her thin face forlorn with sympathy.

  'I just heard - I had to come - Shirley, how awful, I'm so sorry. '

  'Ruth, dear,' said Shirley, getting up, and allowing herself to be embraced. 'That's so kind. So kind. '

  Shirley liked introducing her medical friend to Miles and Samantha, and receiving her pity and her kindness in front of them. It was a tiny taste of how she had imagined widowhood . . .

  But then Ruth had to go back to work, and Shirley returned to her plastic chair and her uncomfortable thoughts.

  'He'll be OK,' Samantha was murmuring to Miles, as he rested his head on her shoulder. 'I know he'll pull through. He did last time. '

  Shirley watched little neon-bright fish darting hither and thither in their tank. It was the past that she wished she could change; the future was a blank.

  'Has anyone phoned Mo?' Miles asked after a while, wiping his eyes on the back of one hand, while the other gripped Samantha's leg. 'Mum, d'you want me to - ?'

  'No,' said Shirley sharply. 'We'll wait . . . until we know. '

  In the theatre upstairs, Howard Mollison's body overflowed the edges of the operating table. His chest was wide open, revealing the ruins of Vikram Jawanda's handiwork. Nineteen people laboured to repair the damage, while the machines to which Howard was connected made soft implacable noises, confirming that he continued to live.

  And far below, in the bowels of the hospital, Robbie Weedon's body lay frozen and white in the morgue. Nobody had accompanied him to the hospital, and nobody had visited him in his metal drawer.