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The Casual Vacancy, Page 60

J. K. Rowling

Part Seven Chapter 3


  The coffins lay side by side on biers at the front of the church. A bronze chrysanthemum oar lay on Krystal's, and a white chrysanthemum teddy bear on Robbie's.

  Kay Bawden remembered Robbie's bedroom, with its few grimy plastic toys, and her fingers trembled on the order of service. Naturally, there was to be an inquiry at work, because the local paper was clamouring for one, and had written a front-page piece suggesting that the small boy had been left in the care of a pair of junkies and that his death could have been avoided, if only he had been removed to safety by negligent social workers. Mattie had been signed off with stress again, and Kay's handling of the case review was being assessed. Kay wondered what effect it would have on her chances of getting another job in London, when every local authority was cutting numbers of social workers, and how Gaia would react if they had to stay in Pagford . . . she had not dared discuss it with her yet.

  Andrew glanced sideways at Gaia and they exchanged small smiles. Up in Hilltop House, Ruth was already sorting things for the move. Andrew could tell that his mother hoped, in her perennially optimistic way, that by sacrificing their house and the beauty of the hills, they would be rewarded with a rebirth. Wedded for ever to an idea of Simon that took no account of his rages or his crookedness, she was hoping that these would be left behind, like boxes forgotten in the move . . . But at least, Andrew thought, he would be one step nearer London when they went, and he had Gaia's assurance that she had been too drunk to know what she was doing with Fats, and perhaps she might invite him and Sukhvinder back to her house for coffee after the funeral was over . . .

  Gaia, who had never been inside St Michael's before, was half listening to the vicar's sing-song delivery, letting her eyes travel over the high starry ceiling and the jewel-coloured windows. There was a prettiness about Pagford that, now she knew that she was leaving, she thought she might quite miss . . .

  Tessa Wall had chosen to sit behind everyone else, on her own. This brought her directly under the calm gaze of St Michael, whose foot rested eternally on that writhing devil with its horns and tail. Tessa had been in tears ever since her first glimpse of the two glossy coffins and, as much as she tried to stifle them, her soft gurglings were still audible to those near her. She had half expected somebody on the Weedon side of the church to recognize her as Fats' mother and attack her, but nothing had happened.

  (Her family life had turned inside out. Colin was furious with her.

  'You told him what?'

  'He wanted a taste of real life,' she had sobbed, 'he wanted to see the seamy underside - don't you understand what all that slumming it was about?'

  'So you told him that he might be the result of incest, and that I tried to kill myself because he came into the family?'

  Years of trying to reconcile them, and it had taken a dead child, and Colin's profound understanding of guilt, to do it. She had heard the two of them talking in Fats' attic room the previous evening, and paused to eavesdrop at the foot of the stairs.

  '. . . you can put that - that thing that Mum suggested out of your head completely,' Colin was saying gruffly. 'You've got no physical or mental abnormalities, have you? Well then . . . don't worry about it any more. But your counsellor will help you with all of this . . . ')

  Tessa gurgled and snorted into her sodden tissue, and thought how little she had done for Krystal, dead on the bathroom floor . . . it would have been a relief if St Michael had stepped down from his glowing window and enacted judgement on them all, decreeing exactly how much fault was hers, for the deaths, for the broken lives, for the mess . . . A fidgeting young Tully boy on the other side of the aisle hopped out of his pew, and a tattooed woman reached out a powerful arm, grabbed him and pulled him back. Tessa's sobs were punctuated by a little gasp of surprise. She was sure that she had recognized her own lost watch on the thick wrist.

  Sukhvinder, who was listening to Tessa's sobs, felt sorry for her, but did not dare turn around. Parminder was furious with Tessa. There had been no way for Sukhvinder to explain the scars on her arms without mentioning Fats Wall. She had begged her mother not to call the Walls, but then Tessa had telephoned Parminder to tell them that Fats had taken full responsibility for The_Ghost_of_ Barry_Fairbrother's posts on the council website, and Parminder had been so vitriolic on the telephone that they had not spoken since.

  It had been such a strange thing for Fats to do, to take the blame for her post too; Sukhvinder thought of it almost as an apology. He had always seemed to read her mind: did he know that she had attacked her own mother? Sukhvinder wondered whether she would be able to confess the truth to this new counsellor in whom her parents seemed to place so much faith, and whether she would ever be able to tell the newly kind and contrite Parminder . . .

  She was trying to follow the service, but it was not helping her in the way that she had hoped. She was glad about the chrysanthemum oar and the teddy bear, which Lauren's mum had made; she was glad that Gaia and Andy had come, and the girls from the rowing team, but she wished that the Fairbrother twins had not refused.

  ('It'd upset Mum,' Siobhan had told Sukhvinder. 'See, she thinks Dad spent too much time on Krystal. '

  'Oh,' said Sukhvinder, taken aback.

  'And,' said Niamh, 'Mum doesn't like the idea that she'll have to see Krystal's grave every time we visit Dad's. They'll probably be really near each other. '

  Sukhvinder thought these objections small and mean, but it seemed sacrilegious to apply such terms to Mrs Fairbrother. The twins walked away, wrapped up in each other as they always were these days, and treating Sukhvinder with coolness for her defection to the outsider, Gaia Bawden. )

  Sukhvinder kept waiting for somebody to stand up and talk about who Krystal really was, and what she had done in her life, the way that Niamh and Siobhan's uncle had done for Mr Fairbrother, but apart from the vicar's brief reference to 'tragically short lives' and 'local family with deep roots in Pagford', he seemed determined to skirt the facts.

  So Sukhvinder focused her thoughts on the day that their crew had competed in the regional finals. Mr Fairbrother had driven them in the minibus to face the girls from St Anne's. The canal ran right through the private school's grounds, and it had been decided that they were to change in the St Anne's sports hall, and start the race there.

  'Unsporting, course it is,' Mr Fairbrother had told them on the way. 'Home-ground advantage. I tried to get it changed, but they wouldn't. Just don't be intimidated, all right?'

  'I ain' fuck - '

  'Krys - '

  'I ain' scared. '

  But when they turned into the grounds, Sukhvinder was scared. Long stretches of soft green lawn, and a big symmetrical golden-stoned building with spires and a hundred windows: she had never seen anything like it, except on picture postcards.

  'It's like Buckingham Palace!' Lauren shrieked from the back, and Krystal's mouth had formed a round O; she had been as unaffected as a child sometimes.

  All of their parents, and Krystal's great-grandmother, were waiting at the finishing line, wherever that was. Sukhvinder was sure that she was not the only one who felt small, scared and inferior as they approached the entrance of the beautiful building.

  A woman in academic dress came swooping out to greet Mr Fairbrother, in his tracksuit.

  'You must be Winterdown!'

  'Course 'e's not, does 'e look like a fuckin' buildin'?' said Krystal loudly.

  They were sure that the teacher from St Anne's had heard, and Mr Fairbrother turned and tried to scowl at Krystal, but they could tell that he thought it was funny, really. The whole team started to giggle, and they were still snorting and cackling when Mr Fairbrother saw them off at the entrance to the changing rooms.

  'Stretch!' he shouted after them.

  The team from St Anne's was inside with their own coach. The two sets of girls eyed each other across the benches. Sukhvinder was struck by the other team's hai
r. All of them wore it long, natural and shiny: they could have starred in shampoo adverts. On their own team, Siobhan and Niamh had bobs, Lauren's hair was short; Krystal always wore hers in a tight, high pony tail, and Sukhvinder's was rough, thick and unruly as a horse's mane.

  She thought she saw two of the St Anne's girls exchange whispers and smirks, and was sure of it when Krystal suddenly stood tall, glaring at them, and said, 'S'pose your shit smells of roses, does it?'

  'I beg your pardon?' said their coach.

  'Jus' askin',' said Krystal sweetly, turning her back to pull off her tracksuit bottoms.

  The urge to giggle had been too powerful to resist; the Winterdown team snorted with laughter as they changed. Krystal clowned away, and as the St Anne's crew filed out she mooned them.

  'Charming,' said the last girl to leave.

  'Thanks a lot,' Krystal called after her. 'I'll let yer 'ave another look later, if yeh want. I know yeh're all lezzers,' she yelled, 'stuck in 'ere together with no boys!'

  Holly had laughed so much that she had doubled over and banged her head on the locker door.

  'Fuckin' watch it, Hol,' Krystal had said, delighted with the effect she was having on them all. 'Yeh'll need yer 'ead. '

  As they had trooped down to the canal, Sukhvinder could see why Mr Fairbrother had wanted the venue changed. There was nobody but him here to support them at the start, whereas the St Anne's crew had lots of friends shrieking and applauding and jumping up and down on the spot, all with the same kind of glossy long hair.

  'Look!' shouted Krystal, pointing into this group as they passed. 'It's Lexie Mollison! Remember when I knocked yer teeth out, Lex?'

  Sukhvinder had a pain from laughing. She was glad and proud to be walking along behind Krystal, and she could tell that the others were too. Something about how Krystal faced the world was protecting them from the effect of the staring eyes and the fluttering bunting, and the building like a palace in the background.

  But she could tell that even Krystal was feeling the pressure as they climbed into their boat. Krystal turned to Sukhvinder, who always sat behind her. She was holding something in her hand.

  'Good-luck charm,' she said, showing her.

  It was a red plastic heart on a key-ring, with a picture of her little brother in it.

  'I've told 'im I'm gonna bring 'im back a medal,' said Krystal.

  'Yeah,' said Sukhvinder, with a rush of faith and fear. 'We will. '

  'Yeah,' said Krystal, facing front again, and tucking the key-ring back inside her bra. 'No competition, this lot,' she said loudly, so the whole crew could hear. 'Bunch o' muff munchers. Le's do 'em!'

  Sukhvinder remembered the starting gun and the crowd's cheers and her muscles screaming. She remembered her elation at their perfect rhythm, and the pleasure of their deadly seriousness after laughter. Krystal had won it for them. Krystal had taken away the home-ground advantage. Sukhvinder wished that she could be like Krystal: funny and tough; impossible to intimidate; always coming out fighting.

  She had asked Terri Weedon for two things, and they had been granted, because Terri agreed with everyone, always. The medal that Krystal had won that day was around her neck for her burial. The other request came, at the very end of the service, and this time, as he announced it, the vicar sounded resigned.

  Good girl gone bad -

  Take three -


  No clouds in my storms . . .

  Let it rain, I hydroplane into fame

  Comin' down with the Dow Jones . . .

  Her family half carried Terri Weedon back down the royal-blue carpet, and the congregation averted its eyes.