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The Casual Vacancy
Read by Tom Hollander
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When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.
Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.
Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems.
And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity, and unexpected revelations?
A big novel about a small town, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. It is the work of a storyteller like no other.
Table of Contents
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6.11 A casual vacancy is deemed to have occurred:
(a) when a local councillor fails to make his declaration of acceptance of office within the proper time; or
(b) when his notice of resignation is received; or
(c) on the day of his death…
Local Council Administration,
Barry Fairbrother did not want to go out to dinner. He had endured a thumping headache for most of the weekend and was struggling to make a deadline for the local newspaper.
However, his wife had been a little stiff and uncommunicative over lunch, and Barry deduced that his anniversary card had not mitigated the crime of shutting himself away in the study all morning. It did not help that he had been writing about Krystal, whom Mary disliked, although she pretended otherwise.
"Mary, I want to take you out to dinner," he had lied, to break the frost. "Nineteen years, kids! Nineteen years, and your mother's never looked lovelier."
Mary had softened and smiled, so Barry had telephoned the golf club, because it was nearby and they were sure of getting a table. He tried to give his wife pleasure in little ways, because he had come to realize, after nearly two decades together, how often he disappointed her in the big things. It was never intentional. They simply had very different notions of what ought to take up most space in life.
Barry and Mary's four children were past the age of needing a babysitter. They were watching television when he said good-bye to them for the last time, and only Declan, the youngest, turned to look at him, and raised his hand in farewell.
Barry's headache continued to thump behind his ear as he reversed out of the drive and set off through the pretty little town of Pagford, where they had lived as long as they had been married. They drove down Church Row, the steeply sloping street where the most expensive houses stood in all their Victorian extravagance and solidity, around the corner by the mock-Gothic church, where he had once watched his twin girls perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and across the Square, where they had a clear view of the dark skeleton of the ruined abbey that dominated the town's skyline, set high on a hill, melding with the violet sky.
All Barry could think of as he twiddled the steering wheel, navigating the familiar turns, were the mistakes he was sure he had made, rushing to finish the article he had just emailed to the Yarvil and District Gazette. Garrulous and engaging in person, he found it difficult to carry his personality onto paper.
The golf club lay a mere four minutes away from the Square, a little beyond the point where the town petered out in a final wheeze of old cottages. Barry parked the people carrier outside the club restaurant, the Birdie, and stood for a moment beside the car, while Mary reapplied her lipstick. The cool evening air was pleasant on his face. As he watched the contours of the golf course disintegrating into the dusk, Barry wondered why he kept up his membership. He was a bad golfer: his swing was erratic and his handicap was high. He had so many other calls on his time. His head throbbed worse than ever.
Mary switched off the mirror light and closed the passenger side door. Barry pressed the auto lock on the key ring in his hand; his wife's high heels clacked on the tarmac, the car's locking system beeped, and Barry wondered whether his nausea might abate once he had eaten.
Then pain such as he had never experienced sliced through his brain like a demolition ball. He barely noticed the smarting of his knees as they smacked onto the cold tarmac; his skull was awash with fire and blood; the agony was excruciating beyond endurance, except that endure it he must, for oblivion was still a minute away.
Mary screamed—and kept screaming. Several men came running from the bar. One of them sprinted back inside the building to see whether either of the club's retired doctors was present. A married couple, acquaintances of Barry and Mary's, heard the commotion from the restaurant, abandoned their starters and hurried outside to see what they could do. The husband called 999 on his mobile.
The ambulance had to come from the neighboring city of Yarvil, and it took twenty-five minutes to reach them. By the time the pulsing blue light slid over the scene, Barry was lying motionless and unresponsive on the ground in a pool of his own vomit; Mary was crouching beside him, the knees of her tights ripped, clutching his hand, sobbing and whispering his name.
"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.
"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!"
Miles and Samantha sipped their coffee, waiting for Howard to come back. Samantha's dressing gown gaped open as she sat at the kitchen table, revealing the contours of her big breasts as they rested on her forearms. Upwards pressure made them appear fuller and smoother than they were when they hung unsupported. The leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed. She had been a great user of sunbeds when younger.
"What?" said Howard, back on the line. "What did you say about hospital?"
"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 anticlimax 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 Champêtre 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, graying 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 hemorrhage. 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 gray 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 hemorrhage. 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 toward 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 toward 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, nonidentical 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, savoring 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 theater. Howard's presence on earth was, to Shirley, a given, like sunlight and oxygen. She had said as much afterwards, when friends and neighbors 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.
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