Непредвиденная вакансия - Часть первая - Понедельник VII
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 café, and checked the industrial-strength clear plastic that prevented dust from settling in the delicatessen. They were planning to have the café 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.
‘No! How?’
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 pâtés, 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 pâtés 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 Casual Vacancy • Непредвиденная вакансия
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