'Brace yourself,' said Miles Mollison, standing in the kitchen of one of the big houses in Church Row.
He had waited until half-past six in the morning to make the call. It had been a bad night, full of long stretches of wakefulness punctuated by snatches of restless sleep. At four in the morning, he had realized that his wife was awake too, and they had talked quietly for a while in the darkness. Even as they discussed what they had been forced to witness, each trying to drive out vague feelings of fright and shock, feathery little ripples of excitement had tickled Miles' insides at the thought of delivering the news to his father. He had intended to wait until seven, but fear that somebody else might beat him to it had propelled him to the telephone early.
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'What's happened?' boomed Howard's voice, with a slightly tinny edge; Miles had put him on speakerphone for Samantha's benefit. Mahogany brown in her pale pink dressing gown, she had taken advantage of their early waking to apply another handful of Self-Sun to her fading natural tan. The kitchen was full of the mingled smells of instant coffee and synthetic coconut.
'Fairbrother's dead. Collapsed at the golf club last night. Sam and I were having dinner at the Birdie.'
'Fairbrother's dead?' roared Howard.
The inflection implied that he had been expecting some dramatic change in the status of Barry Fairbrother, but that even he had not anticipated actual death.
'Collapsed in the car park,' repeated Miles.
'Good God,' said Howard. 'He wasn't much past forty, was he? Good God.'
Miles and Samantha listened to Howard breathing like a blown horse. He was always short of breath in the mornings.
'What was it? Heart?'
'Something in his brain, they think. We went with Mary to the hospital and - '
But Howard was not paying attention. Miles and Samantha heard him speaking away from his mouthpiece.
'Barry Fairbrother! Dead! It's Miles!'
'Sam and I went in the ambulance,' Miles enunciated clearly. 'With Mary and the body.'
Samantha noticed how Miles' second version emphasized what you might call the more commercial aspect of the story. Samantha did not blame him. Their reward for enduring the awful experience was the right to tell people about it. She did not think she would ever forget it: Mary wailing; Barry's eyes still half open above the muzzle-like mask; she and Miles trying to read the paramedic's expression; the cramped jolting; the dark windows; the terror.
'Good God,' said Howard for the third time, ignoring Shirley's soft background questioning, his attention all Miles'. 'He just dropped down dead in the car park?'
'Yep,' said Miles. 'Moment I saw him it was pretty obvious there was nothing to be done.'
It was his first lie, and he turned his eyes away from his wife as he told it. She remembered his big protective arm around Mary's shaking shoulders: He'll be OK ... he'll be OK ...
But after all, thought Samantha, giving Miles his due, how were you supposed to know one way or the other, when they were strapping on masks and shoving in needles? It had seemed as though they were trying to save Barry, and none of them had known for certain that it was no good until the young doctor had walked towards Mary at the hospital. Samantha could still see, with awful clarity, Mary's naked, petrified face, and the expression of the bespectacled, sleek-haired young woman in the white coat: composed, yet a little wary ... they showed that sort of thing on television dramas all the time, but when it actually happened ...
'Not at all,' Miles was saying. 'Gavin was only playing squash with him on Thursday.'
'And he seemed all right then?'
'Oh yeah. Thrashed Gavin.'
'Good God. Just goes to show you, doesn't it? Just goes to show. Hang on, Mum wants a word.'
A clunk and a clatter, and Shirley's soft voice came on the line.
'What a dreadful shock, Miles,' she said. 'Are you all right?'
Samantha took a clumsy mouthful of coffee; it trickled from the corners of her mouth down the sides of her chin, and she mopped her face and chest with her sleeve. Miles had adopted the voice he often used when speaking to his mother: deeper than usual, a take-command nothing-fazes-me voice, punchy and no-nonsense. Sometimes, especially when drunk, Samantha would imitate Miles and Shirley's conversations. 'Not to worry, Mummy. Miles here. Your little soldier.' 'Darling, you are wonderful: so big and brave and clever.' Once or twice, lately, Samantha had done this in front of other people, leaving Miles cross and defensive, though pretending to laugh. There had been a row, last time, in the car going home.
'You went all the way to the hospital with her?' Shirley was saying from the speakerphone.
No, thought Samantha, we got bored halfway there and asked to be let out.
'Least we could do. Wish we could have done more.'
Samantha got up and walked over to the toaster.
'I'm sure Mary was very grateful,' said Shirley. Samantha crashed the lid of the bread bin and rammed four pieces of bread into the slots. Miles' voice became more natural.
'Yeah, well, once the doctors had told - confirmed that he was dead, Mary wanted Colin and Tessa Wall. Sam phoned them, we waited until they arrived and then we left.'
'Well, it was very lucky for Mary that you were there,' said Shirley. 'Dad wants another word, Miles, I'll put him on. Speak later.'
'"Speak later,"' Samantha mouthed at the kettle, waggling her head. Her distorted reflection was puffy after their sleepless night, her chestnut-brown eyes bloodshot. In her haste to witness the telling of Howard, Samantha had carelessly rubbed fake tanning lotion into the rims.
'Why don't you and Sam come over this evening?' Howard was booming. 'No, hang on - Mum's reminded me we're playing bridge with the Bulgens. Come over tomorrow. For dinner. 'Bout seven.'
'Maybe,' said Miles, glancing at Samantha. 'I'll have to see what Sam's got on.'
She did not indicate whether or not she wanted to go. A strange sense of anti-climax filled the kitchen as Miles hung up.
'They can't believe it,' he said, as if she hadn't heard everything.
They ate their toast and drank fresh mugs of coffee in silence. Some of Samantha's irritability lifted as she chewed. She remembered how she had woken with a jerk in their dark bedroom in the early hours, and had been absurdly relieved and grateful to feel Miles beside her, big and paunchy, smelling of vetiver and old sweat. Then she imagined telling customers at the shop about how a man had dropped dead in front of her, and about the mercy dash to hospital. She thought of ways to describe various aspects of the journey, and of the climactic scene with the doctor. The youth of that self-possessed woman had made the whole thing seem worse. They ought to give the job of breaking the news to someone older. Then, with a further lift of her spirits, she recollected that she had an appointment with the Champ??tre sales rep tomorrow; he had been pleasantly flirty on the telephone.
'I'd better get moving,' said Miles, and he drained his coffee mug, his eyes on the brightening sky beyond the window. He heaved a deep sigh and patted his wife on her shoulder as he passed on the way to the dishwasher with his empty plate and mug.
'Christ, it puts everything in perspective, though, doesn't it, eh?'
Shaking his close-cropped, greying head, he left the kitchen.
Samantha sometimes found Miles absurd and, increasingly, dull. Every now and then, though, she enjoyed his pomposity in precisely the same spirit as she liked, on formal occasions, to wear a hat. It was appropriate, after all, to be solemn and a little worthy this morning. She finished her toast and cleared away her breakfast things, mentally refining the story she planned to tell her assistant.
'Barry Fairbrother's dead,' panted Ruth Price.
She had almost run up the chilly garden path so as to have a few more minutes with her husband before he left for work. She didn't stop in the porch to take off her coat but, still muffled and gloved, burst into the kitchen where Simon and their teenage sons were eating breakfast.
Her husband froze, a piece of toast halfway to his lips, then lowered it with theatrical slowness. The two boys, both in school uniform, looked from one parent to the other, mildly interested.
'An aneurysm, they think,' said Ruth, still a little breathless as she tweaked off her gloves finger by finger, unwinding her scarf and unbuttoning her coat. A thin dark woman with heavy, mournful eyes, the stark blue nurse's uniform suited her. 'He collapsed at the golf club - Sam and Miles Mollison brought him in - and then Colin and Tessa Wall came ...'
She darted out to the porch to hang up her things, and was back in time to answer Simon's shouted question.
'An. Aneurysm. A burst artery in the brain.'
She flitted over to the kettle, switched it on, then began to sweep crumbs from the work surface around the toaster, talking all the while.
'He'll have had a massive cerebral haemorrhage. His poor, poor wife ... she's absolutely devastated ...'
Momentarily stricken, Ruth gazed out of her kitchen window over the crisp whiteness of her frost-crusted lawn, at the abbey across the valley, stark and skeletal against the pale pink and grey sky, and the panoramic view that was the glory of Hilltop House. Pagford, which by night was no more than a cluster of twinkling lights in a dark hollow far below, was emerging into chilly sunlight. Ruth saw none of it: her mind was still at the hospital, watching Mary emerge from the room where Barry lay, all futile aids to life removed. Ruth Price's pity flowed most freely and sincerely for those whom she believed to be like herself. 'No, no, no, no,' Mary had moaned, and that instinctive denial had reverberated inside Ruth, because she had been afforded a glimpse of herself in an identical situation ...
Hardly able to bear the thought, she turned to look at Simon. His light-brown hair was still thick, his frame was almost as wiry as it had been in his twenties and the crinkles at the corners of his eyes were merely attractive, but Ruth's return to nursing after a long break had confronted her anew with the million and one ways the human body could malfunction. She had had more detachment when she was young; now she realized how lucky they all were to be alive.
'Couldn't they do anything for him?' asked Simon. 'Couldn't they plug it up?'
He sounded frustrated, as though the medical profession had, yet again, bungled the business by refusing to do the simple and obvious thing.
Andrew thrilled with savage pleasure. He had noticed lately that his father had developed a habit of countering his mother's use of medical terms with crude, ignorant suggestions. Cerebral haemorrhage. Plug it up. His mother didn't realize what his father was up to. She never did. Andrew ate his Weetabix and burned with hatred.
'It was too late to do anything by the time they got him out to us,' said Ruth, dropping teabags into the pot. 'He died in the ambulance, right before they arrived.'
'Bloody hell,' said Simon. 'What was he, forty?'
But Ruth was distracted.
'Paul, your hair's completely matted at the back. Have you brushed it at all?'
She pulled a hairbrush from her handbag and pushed it into her younger son's hand.
'No warning signs or anything?' asked Simon, as Paul dragged the brush through the thick mop of his hair.
'He'd had a bad headache for a couple of days, apparently.'
'Ah,' said Simon, chewing toast. 'And he ignored it?'
'Oh, yes, he didn't think anything of it.'
'Goes to show, doesn't it?' he said portentously. 'Got to watch yourself.'
That's wise, thought Andrew, with furious contempt; that's profound. So it was Barry Fairbrother's own fault his brain had burst open. You self-satisfied fucker, Andrew told his father, loudly, inside his own head.
Simon pointed his knife at his elder son and said, 'Oh, and by the way. He's going to be getting a job. Old Pizza Face there.'
Startled, Ruth turned from her husband to her son. Andrew's acne stood out, livid and shiny, from his empurpling cheek, as he stared down into his bowl of beige mush.
'Yeah,' said Simon. 'Lazy little shit's going to start earning some money. If he wants to smoke, he can pay for it out of his own wages. No more pocket money.'
'Andrew!' wailed Ruth. 'You haven't been - ?'
'Oh, yes, he has. I caught him in the woodshed,' said Simon, his expression a distillation of spite.
'No more money from us. You want fags, you buy 'em,' said Simon.
'But we said,' whimpered Ruth, 'we said, with his exams coming - '
'Judging by the way he fucked up his mocks, we'll be lucky if he gets any qualifications. He can get himself out to McDonald's early, get some experience,' said Simon, standing up and pushing in his chair, relishing the sight of Andrew's hanging head, the dark pimpled edge of his face. 'Because we're not supporting you through any resits, pal. It's now or never.'
'Oh, Simon,' said Ruth reproachfully.
Simon took two stamping steps towards his wife. Ruth shrank back against the sink. The pink plastic brush fell out of Paul's hand.
'I'm not going to fund the little fucker's filthy habit! Fucking cheek of him, puffing away in my fucking shed!'
Simon hit himself on the chest on the word 'my'; the dull thunk made Ruth wince.
'I was bringing home a salary when I was that spotty little shit's age. If he wants fags, he can pay for them himself, all right? All right?'
He had thrust his face to within six inches of Ruth's.
'Yes, Simon,' she said very quietly.
Andrew's bowels seemed to have become liquid. He had made a vow to himself not ten days previously: had the moment arrived so soon? But his father stepped away from his mother and marched out of the kitchen towards the porch. Ruth, Andrew and Paul remained quite still; they might have promised not to move in his absence.
'Did you fill up the tank?' Simon shouted, as he always did when she had been working a night shift.
'Yes,' Ruth called back, striving for brightness, for normality.
The front door rattled and slammed.
Ruth busied herself with the teapot, waiting for the billowing atmosphere to shrink back to its usual proportions. Only when Andrew was about to leave the room to clean his teeth did she speak.
'He worries about you, Andrew. About your health.'
Like fuck he does, the cunt.
Inside his head, Andrew matched Simon obscenity for obscenity. Inside his head, he could take Simon in a fair fight.
Aloud, to his mother, he said, 'Yeah. Right.'
Evertree Crescent was a sickle moon of 1930s bungalows, which lay two minutes from Pagford's main square. In number thirty-six, a house tenanted longer than any other in the street, Shirley Mollison sat, propped up against her pillows, sipping the tea that her husband had brought her. The reflection facing her in the mirrored doors of the built-in wardrobe had a misty quality, due partly to the fact that she was not wearing glasses, and partly to the soft glow cast over the room by her rose-patterned curtains. In this flattering, hazy light, the dimpled pink and white face beneath the short silver hair was cherubic.
The bedroom was just large enough to accommodate Shirley's single bed and Howard's double, crammed together, non-identical twins. Howard's mattress, which still bore his prodigious imprint, was empty. The soft purr and hiss of the shower was audible from where Shirley and her rosy reflection sat facing each other, savouring the news that seemed still to effervesce in the atmosphere, like bubbling champagne.
Barry Fairbrother was dead. Snuffed out. Cut down. No event of national importance, no war, no stock-market collapse, no terrorist attack, could have sparked in Shirley the awe, the avid interest and feverish speculation that currently consumed her.
She had hated Barry Fairbrother. Shirley and her husband, usually as one in all their friendships and enmities, had been a little out of step in this. Howard had sometimes confessed himself entertained by the bearded little man who opposed him so relentlessly across the long scratched tables in Pagford Church Hall; but Shirley made no distinction between the political and the personal. Barry had opposed Howard in the central quest of his life, and this made Barry Fairbrother her bitter enemy.
Loyalty to her husband was the main, but not the only, reason for Shirley's passionate dislike. Her instincts about people were finely honed in one direction only, like a dog that has been trained to sniff out narcotics. She was perennially aquiver to detect condescension, and had long detected its reek in the attitudes of Barry Fairbrother and his cronies on the Parish Council. The Fairbrothers of the world assumed that their university education made them better than people like her and Howard, that their views counted for more. Well, their arrogance had received a nasty blow today. Fairbrother's sudden death bolstered Shirley in the long-held belief that, whatever he and his followers might have thought, he had been of a lower and weaker order than her husband, who, in addition to all his other virtues, had managed to survive a heart attack seven years previously.
(Never for an instant had Shirley believed that her Howard would die, even while he was in the operating theatre. Howard's presence on earth was, to Shirley, a given, like sunlight and oxygen. She had said as much afterwards, when friends and neighbours had spoken of miraculous escapes and how lucky that they had the cardiac unit so nearby in Yarvil, and how dreadfully worried she must have been.
'I always knew he'd pull through,' Shirley had said, unruffled and serene. 'I never doubted it.'
And here he was, as good as ever; and there was Fairbrother in the morgue. It only went to show.)
In the elation of this early morning, Shirley was reminded of the day after her son Miles had been born. She had sat up in bed all those years ago, exactly like this, with sunlight streaming through the ward window, a cup of tea that somebody else had made her in her hands, waiting for them to bring in her beautiful new baby boy for feeding. Birth and death: there was the same consciousness of heightened existence and of her own elevated importance. The news of Barry Fairbrother's sudden demise lay in her lap like a fat new baby to be gloated over by all her acquaintances; and she would be the fount, the source, for she was first, or nearly so, to receive the news.
None of the delight frothing and fizzing inside Shirley had been apparent while Howard had been in the room. They had merely exchanged the comments proper to sudden death before he had taken himself off to the shower. Naturally Shirley had known, as they slid stock words and phrases back and forth between them like beads on an abacus, that Howard must be as brimful of ecstasy as she was; but to express these feelings out loud, when the news of the death was still fresh in the air, would have been tantamount to dancing naked and shrieking obscenities, and Howard and Shirley were clothed, always, in an invisible layer of decorum that they never laid aside.
Another happy thought came to Shirley. She set down her cup and saucer on the bedside table, slipped out of bed, pulled on her candlewick dressing gown and her glasses, and padded down the hall to tap on the bathroom door.
An interrogative noise answered over the steady patter of the shower.
'Do you think I should put something on the website? About Fairbrother?'
'Good idea,' he called through the door, after a moment's consideration. 'Excellent idea.'
So she bustled along to the study. It had previously been the smallest bedroom in the bungalow, long since vacated by their daughter Patricia who had gone to London and was rarely mentioned.
Shirley was immensely proud of her skill on the internet. She had been to evening classes in Yarvil ten years previously, where she had been one of the oldest students and the slowest. Nevertheless, she had persevered, determined to be the administrator of Pagford Parish Council's exciting new website. She logged herself in and brought up the Parish Council's homepage.
The brief statement flowed so easily that it was as if her fingers themselves were composing it.
Councillor Barry Fairbrother
It is with great regret that we announce the death of Councillor Barry Fairbrother. Our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.
She read this through carefully, hit return and watched the message appear on the message board.
The Queen had lowered the flag on Buckingham Palace when Princess Diana had died. Her Majesty occupied a very special position in Shirley's interior life. Contemplating the message on the website, she was satisfied and happy that she had done the right thing. Learning from the best ...
She navigated away from the Parish Council message board and dropped into her favourite medical website, where she painstakingly entered the words 'brain' and 'death' in the search box.
The suggestions were endless. Shirley scrolled through the possibilities, her mild eyes rolling up and down, wondering to which of these deadly conditions, some of them unpronounceable, she owed her present happiness. Shirley was a hospital volunteer; she had developed quite a little interest in matters medical since starting work at South West General, and occasionally offered diagnoses to her friends.
But there was no concentrating on long words and symptoms this morning: her thoughts skittered away to the further dissemination of the news; already she was mentally assembling and reshuffling a list of telephone numbers. She wondered whether Aubrey and Julia knew, and what they would say; and whether Howard would let her tell Maureen or reserve that pleasure for himself.
It was all immensely exciting.
Andrew Price closed the front door of the small white house and followed his younger brother down the steep garden path, crunchy with frost, that led to the icy metal gate in the hedge and the lane beyond. Neither boy spared a glance for the familiar view spread out below them: the tiny town of Pagford cupped in a hollow between three hills, one of which was crested with the remains of the twelfth-century abbey. A thin river snaked around the edge of the hill and through town, straddled by a toy stone bridge. The scene was dull as a flat-painted backdrop to the brothers; Andrew despised the way that, on the rare occasions when the family had guests, his father seemed to take credit for it, as though he had designed and built the whole thing. Andrew had lately decided that he would prefer an outlook of asphalt, broken windows and graffiti; he dreamed of London and of a life that mattered.
The brothers marched to the end of the lane, ambling to a halt on the corner where they met the wider road. Andrew reached into the hedge, groped around for a while, then drew out a half-full packet of Benson & Hedges and a slightly damp box of matches. After several false starts, the heads of the matches crumbling against the strike, he succeeded in lighting up. Two or three deep drags, and then the grumbling engine of the school bus broke the stillness. Andrew carefully knocked out the glowing head of his cigarette and stowed the rest back in the packet.
The bus was always two-thirds full by the time it reached the turning for Hilltop House, because it had already skirted outlying farms and houses. The brothers sat apart as usual, each of them taking a double seat and turning to stare out of the window as the bus rumbled and lurched on down into Pagford.
At the foot of their hill was a house that stood in a wedge-shaped garden. The four Fairbrother children usually waited outside the front gate, but there was nobody there today. The curtains were all closed. Andrew wondered whether you usually sat in the dark when somebody died.
A few weeks previously, Andrew had got off with Niamh Fairbrother, one of Barry's twin daughters, at a disco in the school drama hall. She had shown a distasteful tendency to shadow his movements for a while afterwards. Andrew's parents were barely acquainted with the Fairbrothers; Simon and Ruth had hardly any friends, but they seemed to have had a tepid liking for Barry, who had managed the minuscule branch of the only bank still present in Pagford. Fairbrother's name had cropped up a lot in connection with such things as the Parish Council, town hall theatricals, and the Church Fun Run. These were things in which Andrew had no interest and from which his parents held themselves aloof, excepting the occasional sponsorship form or raffle ticket.
As the bus turned left and trundled down Church Row, past the spacious Victorian houses ranged in descending tiers, Andrew indulged in a little fantasy in which his father dropped dead, gunned down by an invisible sniper. Andrew visualized himself patting his sobbing mother on the back while he telephoned the undertaker. He had a cigarette in his mouth as he ordered the cheapest coffin.
The three Jawandas, Jaswant, Sukhvinder and Rajpal, got on the bus at the bottom of Church Row. Andrew had carefully chosen a seat with an empty place in front of it, and he willed Sukhvinder to sit in front of him, not for her own sake (Andrew's best friend Fats referred to her as TNT, short for 'Tits 'N' Tash'), but because She so often chose to sit beside Sukhvinder. And whether because his telepathic promptings were particularly powerful this morning or not, Sukhvinder did indeed choose the seat in front. Jubilant, Andrew stared, unseeing, at the grimy window, and clutched his school bag more closely to him, to conceal the erection brought on by the heavy vibration of the bus.
Anticipation mounted with every fresh pitch and heave, as the cumbersome vehicle edged its way through the narrow streets, around the tight corner into the village square and towards the corner of Her road.
Andrew had never experienced this intensity of interest in any girl. She was newly arrived; an odd time to change schools, the spring term of the GCSE year. Her name was Gaia, and that was fitting, because he had never heard it before, and she was something entirely new. She had walked onto the bus one morning like a simple statement of the sublime heights to which nature could reach and sat herself down two seats in front of him, while he sat transfixed by the perfection of her shoulders and the back of her head.
She would be here any minute, and if she sat beside square and sulky Sukhvinder, as she so often did, she would be close enough to smell the nicotine on him. He liked to see inanimate objects react to her body; liked to see the bus seat give a little as she dropped her weight into it, and that copper-gold mass of hair curve against the steel bar at the top.
The bus driver slowed, and Andrew turned his face away from the door, pretending to be lost in contemplation; he would look around when she got on, as if he had only just realized that they had stopped; he would make eye contact, possibly nod. He waited to hear the doors open, but the soft throb of the engine was not interrupted by the familiar grind and thump.
Andrew glanced around and saw nothing but short, shabby little Hope Street: two lines of small terraced houses. The bus driver was leaning over to make sure she was not coming. Andrew wanted to tell him to wait, because only the previous week she had burst from one of those little houses and come running up the pavement (it had been acceptable to watch, because everyone had been watching), and the sight of her running had been enough to occupy his thoughts for hours, but the driver hauled at the big wheel and the bus set off again. Andrew returned to his contemplation of the dirty window with an ache in his heart and in his balls.
The small terraces in Hope Street had once been labourers' houses. Gavin Hughes was shaving slowly and with unnecessary care in the bathroom of number ten. He was so fair, and his beard so sparse, that the job really only needed to be done twice weekly; but the chilly, slightly grubby bathroom was the only place of sanctuary. If he dawdled in here until eight, he could plausibly say he needed to leave for work immediately. He dreaded having to talk to Kay.
He had only managed to head off discussion the previous evening by initiating the most prolonged and inventive coupling they had enjoyed since the very earliest days of their relationship. Kay had responded immediately and with unnerving enthusiasm: flicking herself from position to position; drawing up her strong, stocky legs for him; contorting like the Slavic acrobat she so closely resembled, with her olive skin and very short dark hair. Too late, he had realized that she was taking this uncharacteristic act of assertion as a tacit confession of those things he was determined to avoid saying. She had kissed him greedily; he had found her wet intrusive kisses erotic when the affair began, now he found them vaguely repellent. He took a long time to climax, his horror at what he had started constantly threatening to deflate his erection. Even this worked against him: she seemed to take his unusual stamina as a display of virtuosity.
When at last it was over, she had cuddled close to him in the darkness and stroked his hair for a while. Miserably he stared into the void, aware that after all his vague plans for loosening the ties, he had involuntarily tightened them. After she had fallen asleep, he had lain with one arm trapped underneath her, the damp sheet adhering unpleasantly to his thigh, on a mattress lumpy with old springs, and wished for the courage to be a bastard, to slip away and never return.
Kay's bathroom smelt of mould and damp sponges. A number of hairs were stuck to the side of the small bath. Paint was peeling off the walls.
'It needs some work,' Kay had said.
Gavin had been careful not to volunteer any help. The things he had not said to her were his talisman and safeguard; he strung them together in his mind and checked them off like beads on a rosary. He had never said 'love'. He had never talked about marriage. He had never asked her to move to Pagford. And yet, here she was, and somehow, she made him feel responsible.
His face stared back at him from out of the tarnished mirror. There were purple shadows under his eyes, and his thinning blond hair was wispy and dry. The naked bulb overhead lit the weak, goaty face with forensic cruelty.
Thirty-four, he thought, and I look at least forty.
He lifted the razor and delicately strafed off those two thick blond hairs that grew either side of his prominent Adam's apple.
Fists pummelled the bathroom door. Gavin's hand slipped and blood dripped from his thin neck to speckle his clean white shirt.
'Your boyfriend,' came a furious female scream, 'is still in the bathroom and I am going to be late!'
'I've finished!' he shouted.
The gash stung, but what did that matter? Here was his excuse, ready-made: Look what your daughter made me do. I'll have to go home and change my shirt before work. With an almost light heart he grabbed the tie and jacket he had hung over the hook on the back of the door, and unlocked it.
Gaia pushed past, slammed the door behind her and rammed the lock home. Out on the tiny landing, which was thick with an unpleasant smell of burnt rubber, Gavin remembered the headboard banging against the wall last night, the creaking of the cheap pine bed, Kay's groans and yelps. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that her daughter was in the house.
He jogged down the carpetless stairs. Kay had told him of her plans to sand and polish them, but he doubted that she would ever do it; her flat in London had been shabby and in poor repair. In any case, he was convinced that she was expecting to move in with him quite soon, but he would not allow it; that was the final bastion, and there, if forced, he would make his stand.
'What have you done to yourself?' Kay squealed, catching sight of the blood on his shirt. She was wearing the cheap scarlet kimono that he did not like, but which suited her so well.
'Gaia banged on the door and made me jump. I'm going to have to go home and change.'
'Oh, but I've made you breakfast!' she said quickly.
He realized that the smell of burning rubber was actually scrambled eggs. They looked anaemic and overcooked.
'I can't, Kay, I've got to change this shirt, I've got an early - '
She was already spooning the congealed mass onto plates.
'Five minutes, surely you can stay five - ?'
The mobile phone in his jacket pocket buzzed loudly and he pulled it out, wondering whether he would have the nerve to pretend that it was an urgent summons.
'Jesus Christ,' he said, in unfeigned horror.
'What's the matter?'
'Barry. Barry Fairbrother! He's ... fuck, he's ... he's dead! It's from Miles. Jesus Christ. Jesus fucking Christ!'
She laid down the wooden spoon.
'Who's Barry Fairbrother?'
'I play squash with him. He's only forty-four! Jesus Christ!'
He read the text message again. Kay watched him, confused. She knew that Miles was Gavin's partner at the solicitor's, but had never been introduced to him. Barry Fairbrother was no more than a name to her.
There came a thunderous banging from the stairs: Gaia was stamping as she ran.
'Eggs,' she stated, at the kitchen door. 'Like you make me every morning. Not. And thanks to him,' with a venomous look at the back of Gavin's head, 'I've probably missed the bloody bus.'
'Well, if you hadn't spent so long doing your hair,' Kay shouted at the figure of her retreating daughter, who did not respond, but stormed down the hall, her bag bouncing off the walls, and slammed the front door behind her.
'Kay, I've got to go,' said Gavin.
'But look, I've got it all ready, you could have it before - '
'I've got to change my shirt. And, shit, I did Barry's will for him, I'll need to look it out. No, I'm sorry, I've got to go. I can't believe it,' he added, rereading Miles' text. 'I can't believe it. We only played squash on Thursday. I can't - Jesus.'
A man had died; there was nothing she could say, not without putting herself in the wrong. He kissed her briefly on her unresponsive mouth, and then walked away, up the dark narrow hall.
'Will I see you - ?'
'I'll call you later,' he shouted over her, pretending not to hear.
Gavin hurried across the road to his car, gulping the crisp, cold air, holding the fact of Barry's death in his mind like a phial of volatile liquid that he dare not agitate. As he turned the key in the ignition, he imagined Barry's twin daughters crying, face down in their bunk beds. He had seen them lying like that, one above the other, each playing on a Nintendo DS, when he passed the door of their bedroom the very last time he had gone round for dinner.
The Fairbrothers had been the most devoted couple he knew. He would never eat at their house again. He used to tell Barry how lucky he was. Not so lucky after all.
Someone was coming down the pavement towards him; in a panic that it was Gaia, coming to shout at him or to demand a lift, he reversed too hard and hit the car behind him: Kay's old Vauxhall Corsa. The passer-by drew level with his window, and was revealed to be an emaciated, hobbling old woman in carpet slippers. Sweating, Gavin swung his steering wheel around and squeezed out of the space. As he accelerated, he glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw Gaia letting herself back into Kay's house.
He was having difficulty getting enough air into his lungs. There was a tight knot in his chest. Only now did he realize that Barry Fairbrother had been his best friend.
The school bus had reached the Fields, the sprawling estate that lay on the outskirts of the city of Yarvil. Dirty grey houses, some of them spray-painted with initials and obscenities; the occasional boarded window; satellite dishes and overgrown grass - none of it was any more worthy of Andrew's sustained attention than the ruined abbey of Pagford, glittering with frost. Andrew had once been intrigued and intimidated by the Fields, but familiarity had long since rendered it all commonplace.
The pavements swarmed with children and teenagers walking towards school, many of them in T-shirts, despite the cold. Andrew spotted Krystal Weedon, byword and dirty joke. She was bouncing along, laughing uproariously, in the middle of a mixed group of teenagers. Multiple earrings swung from each ear, and the string of her thong was clearly visible above her low-slung tracksuit bottoms. Andrew had known her since primary school, and she featured in many of the most highly coloured memories of his extreme youth. They had jeered at her name, but instead of crying, as most of the little girls would have done, five-year-old Krystal had caught on, cackled and shrieked, 'Weed-on! Krystal weed-on!' And she had pulled down her pants in the middle of class and pretended to do it. He retained a vivid memory of her bare pink vulva; it was as though Father Christmas had popped up in their midst; and he remembered Miss Oates, bright red in the face, marching Krystal from the room.
By the age of twelve, transposed to the comprehensive, Krystal had become the most well-developed girl in their year and had lingered at the back of the class, where they were supposed to take their maths worksheets when they had finished and swap them for the next in the series. How it had been initiated, Andrew (among the last to finish his maths, as ever) had no idea, but he had reached the plastic boxes of worksheets, neatly lined up on top of the cupboards at the back, to find Rob Calder and Mark Richards taking it in turns to cup and squeeze Krystal's breasts. Most of the other boys were looking on, electrified, their faces hidden from the teacher by their upstanding textbooks, while the girls, many of them flushed scarlet, were pretending not to have seen. Andrew had realized that half the boys had already had their turn, and that he was expected to take his. He had both wanted and not wanted to. It was not her breasts he feared, but the bold challenging look on her face; he had been frightened of doing it wrong. When the oblivious and ineffectual Mr Simmonds had looked up at last and said, 'You've been up there for ever, Krystal, get a worksheet and sit down,' Andrew had been almost entirely relieved.
Though they had long since been separated into different sets, they were still in the same registration class, so Andrew knew that Krystal was sometimes present, often not, and that she was in almost constant trouble. She knew no fear, like the boys who came to school with tattoos they had inked themselves, with split lips and cigarettes, and stories of clashes with the police, of drug taking and easy sex.
Winterdown Comprehensive lay just inside Yarvil, a large, ugly triple-storeyed building whose outer shell consisted of windows interspersed with turquoise-painted panels. When the bus doors creaked open, Andrew joined the swelling masses, black-blazered and sweatered, that were milling across the car park towards the school's two front entrances. As he was about to join the bottleneck cramming itself through the double doors, he noticed a Nissan Micra pulling up, and detached himself to wait for his best friend.
Tubby, Tubs, Tubster, Flubber, Wally, Wallah, Fatboy, Fats: Stuart Wall was the most nicknamed boy in school. His loping walk, his skinniness, his thin sallow face, overlarge ears and permanently pained expression were distinctive enough, but it was his trenchant humour, his detachment and poise that set him apart. Somehow he managed to disassociate himself from everything that might have defined a less resilient character, shrugging off the embarrassment of being the son of a ridiculed and unpopular deputy head; of having a frumpy, overweight guidance teacher as a mother. He was pre-eminently and uniquely himself: Fats, school notable and landmark, and even the Fielders laughed at his jokes, and rarely bothered - so coolly and cruelly did he return jibes - to laugh at his unfortunate connections.
Fats' self-possession remained total this morning when, in full view of the parent-free hordes streaming past, he had to struggle out of the Nissan alongside not only his mother but his father too, who usually travelled to school separately. Andrew thought again of Krystal Weedon and her exposed thong, as Fats loped towards him.
'All right, Arf?' said Fats.
They moved together into the crowd, their school bags slung over their shoulders, buffeting the shorter kids in the face, creating a small space in their slipstream.
'Cubby's been crying,' said Fats, as they walked up the teeming stairs.
'Barry Fairbrother dropped dead last night.'
'Oh yeah, I heard,' said Andrew.
Fats gave Andrew the sly, quizzical look he used when others over-reached themselves, pretended to know more than they did, pretended to be more than they were.
'My mum was at the hospital when they brought him in,' said Andrew, nettled. 'She works there, remember?'
'Oh, yeah,' said Fats, and the slyness was gone. 'Well, you know how him and Cubby were bum chums. And Cubby's going to announce it. Not good, Arf.'
They parted at the top of the stairs for their respective registration rooms. Most of Andrew's class was already in their room, sitting on desks, swinging their legs, leaning up against the cupboards at the sides. Bags lay under chairs. Talk was always louder and freer than usual on Monday mornings, because assembly meant an open-air walk to the sports hall. Their registration teacher sat at her desk, marking people present as they came in. She never bothered to call the register formally; it was one of the many small ways in which she attempted to ingratiate herself with them, and the class despised her for it.
Krystal arrived as the bell rang for assembly. She shouted, 'I'm here, miss!' from the doorway, and swung herself back out again. Everyone else followed her, still talking. Andrew and Fats were reunited at the top of the stairs and were borne by the general flow out of the back doors and across the wide grey tarmacked yard.
The sports hall smelt of sweat and trainers; the din of twelve hundred voraciously talking teenagers echoed off its bleak, whitewashed walls. A hard industrial-grey and much-stained carpet covered the floor, inset with different coloured lines marking out badminton and tennis courts, hockey and football pitches; the stuff gave vicious burns if you fell on it bare-legged, but was easier on the backside than bare wood for those who had to sit on it for the duration of whole-school assembly. Andrew and Fats had attained the dignity of tubular-legged, plastic-backed chairs, ranged at the rear of the hall for the fifth and sixth years.
An old wooden lectern stood at the front, facing the pupils, and beside it sat the headmistress, Mrs Shawcross. Fats' father, Colin 'Cubby' Wall, walked over to take his place beside her. Very tall, he had a high, balding forehead, and an immensely imitable walk, his arms held rigid by his side, bobbing up and down more than was necessary for forward locomotion. Everyone called him Cubby, because of his infamous obsession with keeping the cubbyholes on the wall outside his school office in good order. The registers went into some of them after they had been marked, while others were assigned to specific departments. 'Be sure and put it in the right cubbyhole, Ailsa!' 'Don't leave it hanging out like that, it'll fall out of the cubbyhole, Kevin!' 'Don't walk over it, girl! Pick it up, give it here, it's meant to be in a cubbyhole!'
All the other teachers called them pigeonholes. It was widely assumed that they did this to set themselves apart from Cubby.
'Move along, move along,' said Mr Meacher, the woodwork teacher, to Andrew and Fats, who had left an empty seat between themselves and Kevin Cooper.
Cubby took his place behind the lectern. The pupils did not settle as quickly as they would have done for the headmistress. At the precise moment that the last voice died away, one of the double doors in the middle of the right-hand wall opened and Gaia walked in.
She glanced around the hall (Andrew permitted himself to watch, because half the hall was watching her; she was late, and unfamiliar, and beautiful, and it was only Cubby talking) and walked quickly, but not unduly so (because she had Fats' gift of self-possession) around the back of the students. Andrew's head could not revolve to keep watching her, but it struck him with a force that made his ears ring, that in moving along with Fats he had left an empty seat beside him.
He heard light, rapid footsteps coming closer, and then she was there; she had sat down right next to him. She nudged his chair, her body moving his. His nostrils caught a whisper of perfume. The whole of the left side of his body was burning with awareness of her, and he was grateful that the cheek nearest her was much less acne-ridden than the right. He had never been this close to her and wondered whether he dared look at her, make some sign of recognition; but immediately decided he had been paralysed too long, and that it was too late to do so naturally.
Scratching his left temple to screen his face, he swivelled his eyeballs to glance down at her hands, clasped loosely on her lap. The nails were short, clean and unvarnished. There was a plain silver ring on one little finger.
Fats moved his elbow discreetly to put pressure on Andrew's side.
'Lastly,' Cubby said, and Andrew realized that he had already heard Cubby say the word twice, and that the quietness in the hall had solidified into silence, as all fidgeting ceased and the air became stiff with curiosity, glee and unease.
'Lastly,' said Cubby again, and his voice wobbled out of control, 'I have a very ... I have a very sad announcement to make. Mr Barry Fairbrother, who has coached our extremely socksess ... success ... successful girls' rowing team for the past two years, has ...'
He choked and passed a hand in front of his eyes.
'... died ...'
Cubby Wall was crying in front of everybody; his knobbly bald head drooped onto his chest. A simultaneous gasp and giggle rolled across the watching crowd, and many faces turned towards Fats, who sat looking sublimely unconcerned; a little quizzical, but otherwise unmoved.
'... died ...' sobbed Cubby, and the headmistress stood up, looking cross.
'... died ... last night.'
A loud squawk rose from somewhere in the middle of the lines of chairs at the back of the hall.
'Who laughed?' roared Cubby, and the air crackled with delicious tension. 'HOW DARE YOU! What girl laughed, who was it?'
Mr Meacher was already on his feet, gesticulating furiously at somebody in the middle of the row just behind Andrew and Fats; Andrew's chair was buffeted again, because Gaia had twisted in her seat to watch, like everyone else. Andrew's entire body seemed to have become super-sensory; he could feel the way Gaia's body was arched towards his. If he turned in the opposite direction, they would be breast to chest.
'Who laughed?' repeated Cubby, raising himself absurdly on tiptoe, as if he might be able to make out the culprit from where he was standing. Meacher was mouthing and beckoning feverishly at the person he had singled out for blame.
'Who is it, Mr Meacher?' shouted Cubby.
Meacher appeared unwilling to say; he was still having difficulty in persuading the guilty party to leave her seat, but as Cubby began to show alarming signs of leaving the lectern to investigate personally, Krystal Weedon shot to her feet, scarlet in the face, and started pushing her way along the row.
'You will see me in my office immediately after assembly!' shouted Cubby. 'Absolutely disgraceful - total lack of respect! Get out of my sight!'
But Krystal stopped at the end of the row, stuck up her middle finger at Cubby and screamed, 'I DI'N' DO NOTHIN', YOU PRICK!'
There was an eruption of excited chatter and laughter; the teachers made ineffectual attempts to quell the noise, and one or two left their chairs to try and intimidate their own registration classes back into order.
The double doors swung shut behind Krystal and Mr Meacher.
'Settle down!' shouted the headmistress, and a precarious quiet, rife with fidgeting and whispers, spread over the hall again. Fats was staring straight ahead, and there was for once a forced air to his indifference and a darker tinge to his skin.
Andrew felt Gaia fall back into her chair. He screwed up his courage, glanced left and grinned. She smiled right back.
Though Pagford's delicatessen would not open until nine thirty, Howard Mollison had arrived early. He was an extravagantly obese man of sixty-four. A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed. Partly because his physique set off these trains of thought, and partly because of his fine line in banter, Howard managed to discomfort and disarm in almost equal measure, so that customers almost always bought more than they meant to on a first visit to the shop. He kept up the patter while he worked, one short-fingered hand sliding the meat-slicer smoothly backwards and forwards, silky-fine slices of ham rippling onto the cellophane held below, a wink ever ready in his round blue eyes, his chins wobbling with easy laughter.
Howard had devised a costume to wear to work: white shirt-sleeves, a stiff dark-green canvas apron, corduroy trousers and a deerstalker into which he had inserted a number of fisherman's flies. If the deerstalker had ever been a joke, it had long since ceased to be. Every workday morning he positioned it, with unsmiling exactitude, on his dense grey curls, aided by a small mirror in the staff lavatory.
It was Howard's constant pleasure to open up in the mornings. He loved moving around the shop while the only sound was that of the softly humming chill cabinets, relished bringing it all back to life - flicking on the lights, pulling up the blinds, lifting lids to uncover the treasures of the chilled counter: the pale grey-green artichokes, the onyx-black olives, the dried tomatoes curled like ruby seahorses in their herb-flecked oil.
This morning, however, his enjoyment was laced with impatience. His business partner Maureen was already late, and, like Miles earlier, Howard was afraid that somebody might beat him to the telling of the sensational news, because she did not have a mobile phone.
He paused beside the newly hewn archway in the wall between the delicatessen and the old shoe shop, soon to become Pagford's newest cafe, and checked the industrial-strength clear plastic that prevented dust from settling in the delicatessen. They were planning to have the cafe open before Easter, in time to pull in the tourists to the West Country for whom Howard filled the windows annually with local cider, cheese and corn dollies.
The bell tinkled behind him, and he turned, his patched and reinforced heart pumping fast from excitement.
Maureen was a slight, round-shouldered woman of sixty-two, and the widow of Howard's original partner.'Heard the news?'
She frowned at him interrogatively.
'Barry Fairbrother's dead.'
Her mouth fell open.
Howard tapped the side of his head.
'Something went. Up here. Miles was there, saw it all happen. Golf club car park.'
'No!' she said again.
'Stone dead,' said Howard, as though there were degrees of deadness, and the kind that Barry Fairbrother had contracted was particularly sordid.
Maureen's brightly lipsticked mouth hung slackly as she crossed herself. Her Catholicism always added a picturesque touch to such moments.
'Miles was there?' she croaked. He heard the yearning for every detail in her deep, ex-smoker's voice.
'D'you want to put on the kettle, Mo?'
He could at least prolong her agony for a few minutes. She slopped boiling tea over her hand in her haste to return to him. They sat together behind the counter, on the high wooden stools Howard had placed there for slack periods, and Maureen cooled her burnt hand on a fistful of ice scraped from around the olives. Together they rattled through the conventional aspects of the tragedy: the widow ('she'll be lost, she lived for Barry'); the children ('four teenagers; what a burden without a father'); the relative youth of the dead man ('he wasn't much older than Miles, was he?'); and then, at last, they reached the real point of departure, beside which all else was aimless meandering.
'What'll happen?' Maureen asked Howard greedily.
'Ah,' said Howard. 'Well, now. That's the question, isn't it? We've got ourselves a casual vacancy, Mo, and it could make all the difference.'
'We've got a ...?' asked Maureen, frightened that she might have missed something crucial.
'Casual vacancy,' repeated Howard. 'What you call it when a council seat becomes vacant through a death. Proper term,' he said pedagogically.
Howard was the Chair of the Parish Council, and First Citizen of Pagford. The position came with a gilt and enamel chain of office, now reposing in the tiny safe that he and Shirley had had installed at the bottom of their fitted wardrobes. If only Pagford District had been granted borough status, he would have been able to call himself Mayor; but even so, to all intents and purposes, that was what he was. Shirley had made this perfectly clear on the homepage of the council website, where, beneath a beaming and florid photograph of Howard in his First Citizen's chain, it was stated that he welcomed invitations to attend local civic and business functions. Just a few weeks previously, he had handed out the cycling proficiency certificates at the local primary school.
Howard sipped his tea and said with a smile to take off the sting, 'Fairbrother was a bugger, mind, Mo. He could be a real bugger.'
'Oh, I know,' she said. 'I know.'
'I'd have had to have it out with him, if he'd lived. Ask Shirley. He could be an underhand bugger.'
'Oh, I know.'
'Well, we'll see. We'll see. This should be the end of it. Mind, I certainly didn't want to win like this,' he added, with a deep sigh, 'but speaking for the sake of Pagford ... for the community ... it's not all bad ...'
Howard checked his watch.
'That's nearly half-past, Mo.'
They were never late opening up, never early closing; the business was run with the ritual and regularity of a temple.
Maureen teetered over to unlock the door and pull up the blinds. The Square was revealed in jerky increments as the blinds went up: picturesque and well kept, due in large part to the co-ordinated efforts of those proprietors whose properties faced onto it. Window-boxes, hanging baskets and flower tubs were dotted about, planted in mutually agreed colours each year. The Black Canon (one of the oldest pubs in England) faced Mollison and Lowe across the Square.
Howard strode in and out of the back room, fetching long rectangular dishes containing fresh pates, and laying them, with their jewel-bright adornments of glistening citrus segments and berries, neatly beneath the glass counter. Puffing a little from exertion coming on top of so much early morning conversation, Howard set the last of the pates down and stood for a little while, looking out at the war memorial in the middle of the Square.
Pagford was as lovely as ever this morning, and Howard knew a sublime moment of exultation in the existence, both of himself, and of the town to which he belonged, as he saw it, like a pulsing heart. He was here to drink it all in - the glossy black benches, the red and purple flowers, the sunlight gilding the top of the stone cross - and Barry Fairbrother was gone. It was difficult not to sense a greater design in this sudden rearrangement of what Howard saw as the battlefield across which he and Barry had faced each other for so long.
'Howard,' said Maureen sharply. 'Howard.'
A woman was striding across the Square; a thin, black-haired, brown-skinned woman in a trench coat, who was scowling at her booted feet as she walked.
'D'you think she ...? Has she heard?' whispered Maureen.
'I don't know,' said Howard.
Maureen, who had still not found time to change into her Dr Scholl's, nearly turned an ankle as she backed away from the windows in haste, and hurried behind the counter. Howard walked slowly, majestically, to occupy the space behind the till, like a gunner moving to his post.
The bell tinkled, and Dr Parminder Jawanda pushed open the door of the delicatessen, still frowning. She did not acknowledge Howard or Maureen, but made her way directly to the shelf of oils. Maureen's eyes followed her with the rapt and unblinking attention of a hawk watching a field mouse.
'Morning,' said Howard, when Parminder approached the counter with a bottle in her hand.
Dr Jawanda rarely looked him in the eye, either at Parish Council meetings, or when they met outside the church hall. Howard was always amused by her inability to dissemble her dislike; it made him jovial, extravagantly gallant and courteous.
'Not at work today?'
'No,' said Parminder, rummaging in her purse.
Maureen could not contain herself.
'Dreadful news,' she said, in her hoarse, cracked voice. 'About Barry Fairbrother.'
'Mm,' said Parminder, but then, 'What?'
'About Barry Fairbrother,' repeated Maureen.
'What about him?'
Parminder's Birmingham accent was still strong after sixteen years in Pagford. A deep vertical groove between her eyebrows gave her a perennially intense look, sometimes of crossness, sometimes of concentration.
'He died,' said Maureen, gazing hungrily into the scowling face. 'Last night. Howard's just been telling me.'
Parminder remained quite still, with her hand in her purse. Then her eyes slid sideways to Howard.
'Collapsed and died in the golf club car park,' Howard said. 'Miles was there, saw it happen.'
More seconds passed.
'Is this a joke?' demanded Parminder, her voice hard and high-pitched.
'Of course it's not a joke,' said Maureen, savouring her own outrage. 'Who'd make a joke like that?'
Parminder set down the oil with a bang on the glass-topped counter and walked out of the shop.
'Well!' said Maureen, in an ecstasy of disapproval. '"Is this a joke?" Charming!'
'Shock,' said Howard wisely, watching Parminder hurrying back across the Square, her trench coat flapping behind her. 'She'll be as upset as the widow, that one. Mind you, it'll be interesting,' he added, scratching idly at the overfold of his belly, which was often itchy, 'to see what she ...'
He left the sentence unfinished, but it did not matter: Maureen knew exactly what he meant. Both, as they watched Councillor Jawanda disappear around a corner, were contemplating the casual vacancy: and they saw it, not as an empty space but as a magician's pocket, full of possibilities.
The Old Vicarage was the last and grandest of the Victorian houses in Church Row. It stood at the very bottom, in a big corner garden, facing St Michael and All Saints across the road.
Parminder, who had run the last few yards down the street, fumbled with the stiff lock on the front door and let herself inside. She would not believe it until she heard it from somebody else, anybody else; but the telephone was already ringing ominously in the kitchen.
Parminder's husband was a cardiac surgeon. He worked at the South West General Hospital in Yarvil and he never usually called from work. Parminder gripped the receiver so tightly that her fingers hurt.
'I only heard by accident. It sounds like an aneurysm. I've asked Huw Jeffries to move the PM up the list. Better for Mary to know what it was. They could be doing him now.'
'Right,' whispered Parminder.
'Tessa Wall was there,' he told her. 'Call Tessa.'
'Yes,' said Parminder. 'All right.'
But when she had hung up, she sank down into one of the kitchen chairs and stared out of the window into the back garden without seeing it, her fingers pressed to her mouth.
Everything had shattered. The fact that it was all still there - the walls and the chairs and the children's pictures on the walls - meant nothing. Every atom of it had been blasted apart and reconstituted in an instant, and its appearance of permanence and solidity was laughable; it would dissolve at a touch, for everything was suddenly tissue-thin and friable.
She had no control over her thoughts; they had broken apart too, and random fragments of memory surfaced and spun out of sight again: dancing with Barry at the Walls' New Year's party, and the silly conversation they had had walking back from the last meeting of the Parish Council.
'You've got a cow-faced house,' she had told him.
'Cow-faced? What does that mean?'
She couldn't settle. Through the hall, then back into the kitchen, where she seized the telephone and called Tessa Wall, who did not pick up. She must be at work. Parminder returned, trembling, to the kitchen chair.
Her grief was so big and wild it terrified her, like an evil beast that had erupted from under the floorboards. Barry, little, bearded Barry, her friend, her ally.
It was exactly the way her father had died. She had been fifteen, and they had come back from town to find him lying face-down on the lawn with the mower beside him, the sun hot on the back of his head. Parminder hated sudden death. The long wasting away that so many people feared was a comforting prospect to her; time to arrange and organize, time to say goodbye ...
Her hands were still pressed tightly over her mouth. She stared at the grave, sweet visage of Guru Nanak pinned to the cork board.
(Vikram did not like the picture.
'What's that doing there?'
'I like it,' she had said defiantly.)
She tamped down the awful urge to cry with a fierceness that her mother had always deplored, especially in the wake of her father's death, when her other daughters, and the aunts and cousins, were all wailing and beating their breasts. 'And you were his favourite too!' But Parminder kept her unwept tears locked tightly inside where they seemed to undergo an alchemical transformation, returning to the outer world as lava slides of rage, disgorged periodically at her children and the receptionists at work.
She could still see Howard and Maureen behind the counter, the one immense, the other scrawny, and in her mind's eye they were looking down at her from a height as they told her that her friend was dead. With an almost welcome gush of fury and hatred she thought, They're glad. They think they'll win now.
She jumped up again, strode back into the sitting room and took down, from the top shelf, one volume of the Sainchis, her brand-new holy book. Opening it at random, she read, with no surprise, but rather a sense of looking at her own devastated face in a mirror:
O mind, the world is a deep, dark pit. On every side, Death casts forward his net.
The room set aside for the guidance department at Winterdown Comprehensive opened off the school library. It had no windows and was lit by a single strip light.
Tessa Wall, head of guidance and wife of the deputy headmaster, entered the room at half-past ten, numb with fatigue and carrying a cup of strong instant coffee that she had brought up from the staff room. She was a short stout woman with a plain wide face, who cut her own greying hair - the blunt fringe was often a little lop-sided - wore clothes of a homespun, crafty variety, and liked jewellery of beads and wood. Today's long skirt might have been made of hessian, and she had teamed it with a thick lumpy cardigan in pea-green. Tessa hardly ever looked at herself in full-length mirrors, and boycotted shops where this was unavoidable.
She had attempted to soften the guidance room's resemblance to a cell by pinning up a Nepalese hanging she had owned since her student days: a rainbow sheet with a bright yellow sun and moon that emitted stylised, wavy rays. The rest of the bare painted surfaces were covered with a variety of posters that either gave helpful tips on boosting self-esteem or telephone numbers to call for anonymous help on a variety of health and emotional issues. The headmistress had made a slightly sarcastic remark about these the last time she had visited the guidance room.
'And if all else fails, they call ChildLine, I see,' she had said, pointing to the most prominent poster.
Tessa sank into her chair with a low groan, took off her wristwatch, which pinched, and placed it on the desk beside various printed sheets and notes. She doubted that progress along the prearranged lines would be possible today; she doubted even whether Krystal Weedon would turn up. Krystal frequently walked out of school when upset, angry or bored. She was sometimes apprehended before she reached the gates and frog-marched back inside, swearing and shouting; at other times, she successfully evaded capture and escaped into days of truancy. Ten forty arrived, the bell sounded, and Tessa waited.
Krystal burst in through the door at ten fifty-one and slammed it behind her. She slumped down in front of Tessa with her arms folded across her ample bosom, her cheap earrings swinging.
'You can tell your 'usband,' she said, her voice trembling, 'that I never fuckin' laughed, all right?'
'Don't swear at me, please, Krystal,' said Tessa.
'I never laughed - all right?' screamed Krystal.
A group of sixth-formers carrying folders had arrived in the library. They glanced through the glass pane in the door; one of them grinned at the sight of the back of Krystal's head. Tessa got up and let down the roller-blind over the window, then returned to her seat in front of the moon and sun.
'All right, Krystal. Why don't you tell me what happened?'
'Your 'usband said sumthin' abou' Mister Fairbrother, right, an' I couldn't hear what he was saying, right, so Nikki tole me, and I couldn't fucking - '
'Krystal! - '
' - couldn't believe it, right, an' I shouted but I never laughed! I never fuck - '
' - Krystal - '
'I never laughed, all right?' shouted Krystal, arms tight across her chest, legs twisted together.
'All right, Krystal.'
Tessa was used to the anger of students she saw most often in guidance. Many of them were devoid of workaday morals; they lied, misbehaved and cheated routinely, and yet their fury when wrongly accused was limitless and genuine. Tessa thought she recognized this as authentic outrage, as opposed to the synthetic kind that Krystal was adept at producing. In any case, the squawk Tessa had heard during assembly had struck her at the time as one of shock and dismay rather than amusement; Tessa had been filled with dread when Colin had publicly identified it as laughter.
'I seen Cubby - '
'Krystal! - '
'I tole your fuckin' 'usband - '
'Krystal, for the last time, please do not swear at me - '
'I told 'im I never laughed, I told 'im! An' he's still gave me fucking detention!'
Tears of fury gleamed in the girl's heavily pencilled eyes. Blood had flowed into her face; peony pink, she glared at Tessa, poised to run, to swear, to give Tessa the finger too. Nearly two years of gossamer-fine trust, laboriously spun between them, was stretching, on the point of tearing.
'I believe you, Krystal. I believe you didn't laugh, but please do not swear at me.'
Suddenly, stubby fingers were rubbing the smeary eyes. Tessa pulled a wad of tissues from out of her desk drawer and handed them across to Krystal, who grabbed them without thanks, pressed them to each eye and blew her nose. Krystal's hands were the most touching part of her: the fingernails were short and broad, untidily painted, and all her hand movements were as naive and direct as a small child's.
Tessa waited until Krystal's snorting breaths had slowed down. Then she said, 'I can tell you're upset that Mr Fairbrother has died - '
'Yer, I am,' said Krystal, with considerable aggression. 'So?'
Tessa had a sudden mental image of Barry listening in to this conversation. She could see his rueful smile; she heard him, quite clearly, saying 'bless her heart'. Tessa closed her stinging eyes, unable to speak. She heard Krystal fidget, counted slowly to ten, and opened her eyes again. Krystal was staring at her, arms still folded, flushed and defiant-looking.
'I'm very sorry about Mr Fairbrother too,' said Tessa. 'He was an old friend of ours, actually. That's the reason Mr Wall is a bit - '
'I told 'im I never - '
'Krystal, please let me finish. Mr Wall is very upset today, and that's probably why he ... why he misinterpreted what you did. I'll speak to him.'
'He won't change his fuck - '
'Well, he won'.'
Krystal banged the leg of Tessa's desk with her foot, beating out a rapid rhythm. Tessa removed her elbows from the desk, so as not to feel the vibration, and said, 'I'll speak to Mr Wall.'
She adopted what she believed was a neutral expression and waited patiently for Krystal to come to her. Krystal sat in truculent silence, kicking the table leg, swallowing regularly.
'What was wrong with Mr Fairbrother?' she said at last.
'They think an artery burst in his brain,' said Tessa.
'Why did it?'
'He was born with a weakness he didn't know about,' said Tessa.
Tessa knew that Krystal's familiarity with sudden death was greater than her own. People in Krystal's mother's circle died prematurely with such frequency that they might have been involved in some secret war of which the rest of the world knew nothing. Krystal had told Tessa how, when she was six years old, she had found the corpse of an unknown young man in her mother's bathroom. It had been the catalyst for one of her many removals into the care of her Nana Cath. Nana Cath loomed large in many of Krystal's stories about her childhood; a strange mixture of saviour and scourge.
'Our crew'll be fucked now,' said Krystal.
'No, it won't,' said Tessa. 'And don't swear, Krystal, please.'
'It will,' said Krystal.
Tessa wanted to contradict her, but the impulse was squashed by exhaustion. Krystal was right, anyway, said a disconnected, rational part of Tessa's brain. The rowing eight would be finished. Nobody except Barry could have brought Krystal Weedon into any group and kept her there. She would leave, Tessa knew it; probably Krystal knew it herself. They sat for a while without speaking, and Tessa was too tired to find words that might have changed the atmosphere between them. She felt shivery, exposed, skinned to the bone. She had been awake for over twenty-four hours.
(Samantha Mollison had telephoned from the hospital at ten o'clock, just as Tessa was emerging from a long soak in the bath to watch the BBC news. She had scrambled back into her clothes while Colin made inarticulate noises and blundered into the furniture. They had called upstairs to tell their son where they were going, then run out to the car. Colin had driven far too fast into Yarvil, as though he might bring Barry back if he could do the journey in record time; outstrip reality and trick it into rearranging itself.)
'If you ain' gonna talk to me, I'll go,' said Krystal.
'Don't be rude, please, Krystal,' said Tessa. 'I'm very tired this morning. Mr Wall and I were at the hospital last night with Mr Fairbrother's wife. They're good friends of ours.'
(Mary had unravelled completely when she had seen Tessa, flinging her arms around her, burying her face in Tessa's neck with a dreadful wailing shriek. Even as Tessa's own tears began to splatter down Mary's narrow back, she thought quite distinctly that the noise Mary was making was called keening. The body that Tessa had so often envied, slim and petite, had quaked in her arms, barely able to contain the grief it was being asked to bear.
Tessa could not remember Miles and Samantha leaving. She did not know them very well. She supposed that they had been glad to go.)
'I seen 'is wife,' said Krystal. 'Blonde woman, she come to see us race.'
'Yes,' said Tessa.
Krystal was chewing on the tips of her fingers.
'He were gonna get me talkin' to the paper,' she said abruptly.
'What's that?' asked Tessa, confused.
'Mr Fairbrother wuz. He wuz gonna get me interviewed. On me own.'
There had once been a piece in the local paper about the Winterdown rowing eight coming first in the regional finals. Krystal, whose reading was poor, had brought a copy of the paper in to show Tessa, and Tessa had read the article aloud, inserting exclamations of delight and admiration. It had been the happiest guidance session she had ever known.
'Were they going to interview you because of rowing?' asked Tessa. 'The crew again?'
'No,' said Krystal. 'Other stuff.' Then, 'When's his funeral?'
'We don't know yet,' said Tessa.
Krystal gnawed at her nails, and Tessa could not summon the energy to break the silence that solidified around them.
The announcement of Barry's death on the Parish Council website sank with barely a ripple, a tiny pebble into the teeming ocean. All the same, the telephone lines in Pagford were busier than usual this Monday, and little knots of pedestrians kept congregating on the narrow pavements to check, in shocked tones, the exactness of their information.
As the news travelled, an odd transmutation took place. It happened to the signature dotting the files in Barry's office and to the emails littering inboxes of his enormous acquaintance, which began to take on the pathos of the crumb trail of a lost boy in a forest. These rapid scribbles, the pixels arranged by fingers henceforth forever still, acquired the macabre aspect of husks. Gavin was already a little repelled by the sight of his dead friend's texts on his phone, and one of the girls from the rowing eight, still crying as she walked back from assembly, found a form that Barry had signed in her school bag, and became almost hysterical.
The twenty-three-year-old journalist at the Yarvil and District Gazette had no idea that Barry's once busy brain was now a heavy handful of spongy tissue on a metal tray in South West General. She read through what he had emailed her an hour before his death, then called his mobile number, but nobody answered. Barry's phone, which he had turned off at Mary's request before they left for the golf club, was sitting silently beside the microwave in the kitchen, along with the rest of his personal effects that the hospital had given her to take home. Nobody had touched them. These familiar objects - his key fob, his phone, his worn old wallet - seemed like pieces of the dead man himself; they might have been his fingers, his lungs.
Onwards and outwards the news of Barry's death spread, radiating, halo-like, from those who had been at the hospital. Onwards and outwards as far as Yarvil, reaching those who knew Barry only by sight or reputation or by name. Gradually the facts lost form and focus; in some cases they became distorted. In places, Barry himself was lost behind the nature of his ending, and he became no more than an eruption of vomit and piss, a twitching pile of catastrophe, and it seemed incongruous, even grotesquely comical, that a man should have died so messily at the smug little golf club.
So it was that Simon Price, who had been one of the first to hear about Barry's death, in his house on top of the hill overlooking Pagford, met a rebounding version at the Harcourt-Walsh printworks in Yarvil where he had worked ever since leaving school. It was borne to him on the lips of a young, gum-chewing forklift driver, whom Simon found skulking beside his office door, after a late-afternoon return from the bathroom.
The boy had not come, in the first place, to discuss Barry at all.
'That thing you said you migh' be int'rested in,' he mumbled, when he had followed Simon into the office, and Simon had closed the door, 'I cud do it for yeh Wednesday, if yeh still fancied it.'
'Yeah?' said Simon, sitting himself down at his desk. 'I thought you said it was all ready to go?'
''Tis, but I can't fix up collection till Wednesday.'
'How much did you say again?'
'Eighty notes, fer cash.'
The boy chewed vigorously; Simon could hear his saliva working. Gum-chewing was one of Simon's many pet hates.
'It's the proper thing, though, is it?' Simon demanded. 'Not some knock-off piece of crap?'
'Come straight from the warehouse,' said the boy, shifting his feet and his shoulders. 'Real thing, still boxed up.'
'All right, then,' said Simon. 'Bring it in Wednesday.'
'What, here?' The boy rolled his eyes. 'Nah, not to work, mate ... Where d'you live?'
'Pagford,' said Simon.
'Where'bouts in Pagford?'
Simon's aversion to naming his home bordered on the superstitious. He not only disliked visitors - invaders of his privacy and possible despoilers of his property - but he saw Hilltop House as inviolate, immaculate, a world apart from Yarvil and the crashing, grinding printworks.
'I'll come and pick it up after work,' said Simon, ignoring the question. 'Where are you keeping it?'
The boy did not look happy. Simon glared at him.
'Well, I'd need the cash upfront,' the forklift driver temporized.
'You get the money when I've got the goods.'
'Dun' work like that, mate.'
Simon thought he might be developing a headache. He could not dislodge the horrible idea, implanted by his careless wife that morning, that a tiny bomb might tick undetected for ages inside a man's brain. The steady clatter and rumble of the printing press beyond the door was surely not good for him; its relentless battery might have been thinning his artery walls for years.
'All right,' he grunted, and rolled over in his chair to extract his wallet from his back pocket. The boy stepped up to the desk, his hand out.
'D'yeh live anywhere near Pagford golf course?' he asked, as Simon counted out tenners into his palm. 'Mate o' mine was up there las' night, an' saw a bloke drop dead. Jus' fuckin' puked an' keeled over an' died in the car park.'
'Yeah, I heard,' said Simon, massaging the last note between his fingers before he passed it over, to make sure there were not two stuck together.
'Bent councillor, he was. The bloke who died. He was takin' backhanders. Grays was paying him to keep them on as contractors.'
'Yeah?' said Simon, but he was immensely interested.
Barry Fairbrother, who'd have thought it?
'I'll get back ter yeh, then,' said the boy, shoving the eighty pounds deep into his back pocket. 'And we'll go an' get it, Wednesday.'
The office door closed. Simon forgot his headache, which was really no more than a twinge, in his fascination at the revelation of Barry Fairbrother's crookedness. Barry Fairbrother, so busy and sociable, so popular and cheerful: and all the time, trousering bribes from Grays.
The news did not rock Simon as it would have done nearly everybody else who had known Barry, nor did it diminish Barry in his eyes; on the contrary, he felt an increased respect for the dead man. Anyone with any brains was working, constantly and covertly, to grab as much as they could; Simon knew that. He gazed unseeingly at the spreadsheet on his computer screen, deaf once more to the grinding of the printworks beyond his dusty window.
There was no choice but to work from nine to five if you had a family, but Simon had always known that there were other, better ways; that a life of ease and plenty dangled over his head like a great bulging pinata, which he might smash open if only he had a stick big enough, and the knowledge of when to strike. Simon had the child's belief that the rest of the world exists as staging for their personal drama; that destiny hung over him, casting clues and signs in his path, and he could not help feeling that he had been vouchsafed a sign, a celestial wink.
Supernatural tip-offs had accounted for several apparently quixotic decisions in Simon's past. Years previously, when still a lowly apprentice at the printworks, with a mortgage he could barely afford and a newly pregnant wife, he had bet one hundred pounds on a well-favoured Grand National runner called Ruthie's Baby, which had fallen at the second last. Shortly after they had bought Hilltop House, Simon had sunk twelve hundred pounds, which Ruth had been hoping to use for curtains and carpets, into a time-share scheme run by a flash, fiddling old acquaintance from Yarvil. Simon's investment had vanished with the company director, but although he had raged and sworn and kicked his younger son halfway down the stairs for getting in his way, he had not contacted the police. He had known about certain irregularities in the way the company operated before he put his money there, and he foresaw awkward questions.
Set against these calamities, though, were strokes of luck, dodges that worked, hunches that paid off, and Simon gave great weight to these when totalling his score; they were the reason that he kept faith with his stars, that reinforced him in his belief that the universe had more in store for him than the mug's game of working for a modest salary until he retired or died. Scams and short-cuts; leg-ups and back-scratches; everyone was at it, even, as it turned out, little Barry Fairbrother.
There, in his poky office, Simon Price gazed covetously on a vacancy among the ranks of insiders to a place where cash was now trickling down onto an empty chair with no lap waiting to catch it.
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