Непредвиденная вакансия - Часть первая - Вторник VI
The spiteful wind blew away the low-hanging cloud of late afternoon and, at sunset, died out. Three houses along from the Walls’, Samantha Mollison sat facing her lamp-lit reflection in the dressing-table mirror, and found the silence and the stillness depressing.
It had been a disappointing couple of days. She had sold virtually nothing. The sales rep from Champêtre had turned out to be a jowly man with an abrasive manner and a hold-all full of ugly bras. Apparently he reserved his charm for the preliminaries, for in person he was all business, patronizing her, criticizing her stock, pushing for an order. She had been imagining somebody younger, taller and sexier; she had wanted to get him and his garish underwear out of her little shop as quickly as possible.
She had bought a ‘with deepest sympathy’ card for Mary Fairbrother that lunchtime, but could not think what to write in it, because, after their nightmare journey to the hospital together, a simple signature did not seem enough. Their relationship had never been close. You bumped up against each other all the time in a place as small as Pagford, but she and Miles had not really known Barry and Mary. If anything, it might have been said that they were in opposing camps, what with Howard and Barry’s endless clashes about the Fields … not that she, Samantha, gave a damn one way or another. She held herself above the smallness of local politics.
Tired, out of sorts and bloated after a day of indiscriminate snacking, she wished that she and Miles were not going to dinner at her parents-in-law’s. Watching herself in the mirror, she put her hands flat against the sides of her face and pulled the skin gently back towards her ears. A younger Samantha emerged by millimetres. Turning her face slowly from side to side, she examined this taut mask. Better, much better. She wondered what it would cost; how much it would hurt; whether she would dare. She tried to imagine what her mother-in-law would say if she appeared with a firm new face. Shirley and Howard were, as Shirley frequently reminded them, helping to pay for their granddaughters’ education.
Miles entered the bedroom; Samantha released her skin and picked up her under-eye concealer, tilting her head back, as she always did when applying make-up: it pulled the slightly sagging skin at her jaw taut and minimized the pouches under her eyes. There were short, needle-deep lines at the edges of her lips. These could be filled, she had read, with a synthetic, injectable compound. She wondered how much difference that would make; it would surely be cheaper than a facelift, and perhaps Shirley would not notice. In the mirror over her shoulder, she saw Miles pulling off his tie and shirt, his big belly spilling over his work trousers.
‘Weren’t you meeting someone today? Some rep?’ he asked. Idly he scratched his hairy navel, staring into the wardrobe.
‘Yes, but it wasn’t any good,’ said Samantha. ‘Crappy stuff.’
Miles enjoyed what she did; he had grown up in a home where retail was the only business that mattered, and he had never lost the respect for commerce that Howard had instilled in him. Then there were all the opportunities for jokes, and for other less subtly disguised forms of self-congratulation that her line of trade afforded. Miles never seemed to tire of making the same old quips or the same sly allusions.
‘Bad fit?’ he enquired knowledgeably.
‘Bad design. Horrible colours.’
Samantha brushed and tied back her thick dry brown hair, watching Miles in the mirror as he changed into chinos and a polo shirt. She was on edge, feeling that she might snap or cry at the smallest provocation.
Evertree Crescent was only a few minutes away, but Church Row was steep, so they drove. Darkness was falling properly, and at the top of the road they passed a shadowy man with Barry Fairbrother’s silhouette and gait; it gave Samantha a shock and she glanced back at him, wondering who he could be. Miles’ car turned left at the top of the road, then, barely a minute later, right, into the half-moon of 1930s bungalows.
Howard and Shirley’s house, a low, wide-windowed building of red brick, boasted generous sweeps of green lawn at the front and back, which were mown into stripes during the summer by Miles. During the long years of their occupancy, Howard and Shirley had added carriage lamps, a white wrought-iron gate and terracotta pots full of geraniums on either side of the front door. They had also put up a sign beside the doorbell, a round, polished piece of wood on which was written, in old Gothic black lettering complete with quotation marks, ‘Ambleside’.
Samantha was sometimes cruelly witty at the expense of her parents-in-law’s house. Miles tolerated her jibes, accepting the implication that he and Samantha, with their stripped-back floors and doors, their rugs on bare boards, their framed art prints and their stylish, uncomfortable sofa, had the better taste; but in his secret soul he preferred the bungalow in which he had grown up. Nearly every surface was covered with something plushy and soft; there were no draughts and the reclining chairs were deliciously comfortable. After he mowed the lawn in the summer, Shirley would bring him a cool beer while he lay back in one of them, watching the cricket on the widescreen TV. Sometimes one of his daughters would come with him and sit beside him, eating ice cream with chocolate sauce especially made for her granddaughters by Shirley.
‘Hello, darling,’ said Shirley, when she opened the door. Her short, compact shape suggested a neat little pepper pot, in its sprigged apron. She stood on tiptoe for her tall son to kiss her, then said, ‘Hello, Sam,’ and turned away immediately. ‘Dinner’s nearly ready. Howard! Miles and Sam are here!’
The house smelt of furniture polish and good food. Howard emerged from the kitchen, a bottle of wine in one hand, a corkscrew in the other. In a practised move, Shirley backed smoothly into the dining room, enabling Howard, who took up almost the entire width of the hall, to pass, before she trotted into the kitchen.
‘Here they are, the good Samaritans,’ boomed Howard. ‘And how’s the brassière business, Sammy? Breasting the recession all right?’
‘Business is surprisingly bouncy, actually, Howard,’ said Samantha.
Howard roared with laughter, and Samantha was sure that he would have patted her on the bottom if he had not been holding the corkscrew and bottle. She tolerated all of her father-in-law’s little squeezes and slaps as the harmless exhibitionism of a man grown too fat and old to do anything more; in any case, it annoyed Shirley, which always pleased Samantha. Shirley never showed her displeasure openly; her smile did not flicker, nor did her tone of sweet reasonableness falter, but within a short time of any of Howard’s mild lewdnesses, she always tossed a dart, hidden in a feathery flourish, at her daughter-in-law. Mention of the girls’ escalating school fees, solicitous enquiries about Samantha’s diet, asking Miles whether he did not think Mary Fairbrother had an awfully pretty figure; Samantha endured it all, smiling, and punished Miles for it later.
‘Hello, Mo!’ said Miles, preceding Samantha into what Howard and Shirley called the lounge. ‘Didn’t know you were going to be here!’
‘Hello, handsome,’ said Maureen, in her deep, gravelly voice. ‘Give me a kiss.’
Howard’s business partner was sitting in a corner of the sofa, clutching a tiny glass of sherry. She was wearing a fuchsia pink dress with dark stockings and high patent-leather heels. Her jet-black hair was heavily lacquered into a bouffant, beneath which her face was pale and monkeyish, with a thick smear of shocking pink lipstick that puckered as Miles bent low to kiss her cheek.
‘Been talking business. Plans for the new café. Hello, Sam, sweetheart,’ Maureen added, patting the sofa beside her. ‘Oh, you are lovely and tanned, is that still from Ibiza? Come sit down by me. What a shock for you at the golf club. It must have been ghastly.’
‘Yes, it was,’ said Samantha.
And for the first time she found herself telling somebody the story of Barry’s death, while Miles hovered, looking for a chance to interrupt. Howard handed out large glasses of Pinot Grigio, paying close attention to Samantha’s account. Gradually, in the glow of Howard and Maureen’s interest, with the alcohol kindling a comforting fire inside her, the tension Samantha had carried with her for two days seemed to drain away and a fragile sense of well-being blossomed.
The room was warm and spotless. Shelving units on either side of the gas fire displayed an array of ornamental china, nearly all of it commemorating some royal landmark or anniversary of the reign of Elizabeth II. A small bookcase in the corner contained a mixture of royal biographies and the glossy cookbooks that had overrun the kitchen. Photographs adorned the shelves and walls: Miles and his younger sister Patricia beamed from a twin frame in matching school uniforms; Miles and Samantha’s two daughters, Lexie and Libby, were represented over and again from babyhood to teens. Samantha figured only once in the family gallery, though in one of the largest and most prominent pictures. It showed her and Miles’ wedding day sixteen years before. Miles was young and handsome, piercing blue eyes crinkled at the photographer, whereas Samantha’s eyes were closed in a half blink, her face was turned sideways, her chin was doubled by her smile at a different lens. The white satin of her dress strained across breasts already swollen with her early pregnancy, making her look huge.
One of Maureen’s thin claw-like hands was playing with the chain she always wore around her neck, on which hung a crucifix and her late husband’s wedding ring. When Samantha reached the point in her story where the doctor told Mary that there was nothing they could do, Maureen put her free hand on Samantha’s knee and squeezed.
‘Dishing up!’ called Shirley. Though she had not wanted to come, Samantha felt better than she had in two days. Maureen and Howard were treating her like a mixture of heroine and invalid, and both of them patted her gently on the back as she passed them on her way into the dining room.
Shirley had turned down the dimmer switch, and lit long pink candles to match the wallpaper and the best napkins. The steam rising from their soup plates in the gloom made even Howard’s wide, florid face look otherworldly. Having drunk almost to the bottom of her big wine glass, Samantha thought how funny it would be if Howard announced that they were about to hold a séance, to ask Barry for his own account of the events at the golf club.
‘Well,’ said Howard, in a deep voice, ‘I think we ought to raise our glasses to Barry Fairbrother.’
Samantha tipped back her glass quickly, to stop Shirley seeing that she had already downed most of its contents.
‘It was almost certainly an aneurysm,’ announced Miles, the instant the glasses had landed back on the tablecloth. He had withheld this information even from Samantha, and he was glad, because she might have squandered it just now, while talking to Maureen and Howard. ‘Gavin phoned Mary to give the firm’s condolences and touch base about the will, and Mary confirmed it. Basically, an artery in his head swelled up and burst’ (he had looked up the term on the internet, once he had found out how to spell it, back in his office after speaking to Gavin). ‘Could have happened at any time. Some sort of inborn weakness.’
‘Ghastly,’ said Howard; but then he noticed that Samantha’s glass was empty, and heaved himself out of his chair to top it up. Shirley drank soup for a while with her eyebrows hovering near her hairline. Samantha slugged down more wine in defiance.
‘D’you know what?’ she said, her tongue slightly unwieldy, ‘I thought I saw him on the way here. In the dark. Barry.’
‘I expect it was one of his brothers,’ said Shirley dismissively. ‘They’re all alike.’
But Maureen croaked over Shirley, drowning her out.
‘I thought I saw Ken, the evening after he died. Clear as day, standing in the garden, looking up at me through the kitchen window. In the middle of his roses.’
Nobody responded; they had heard the story before. A minute passed, full of nothing but soft slurps, then Maureen spoke again with her raven’s caw.
‘Gavin’s quite friendly with the Fairbrothers, isn’t he, Miles? Doesn’t he play squash with Barry? Didn’t he, I should say.’
‘Yeah, Barry thrashed him once a week. Gavin must be a lousy player; Barry had ten years on him.’
Near identical expressions of complacent amusement touched the candlelit faces of the three women around the table. If nothing else, they had in common a slightly perverse interest in Miles’ stringy young business partner. In Maureen’s case, this was merely a manifestation of her inexhaustible appetite for all the gossip of Pagford, and the goings-on of a young bachelor were prime meat. Shirley took a particular pleasure in hearing all about Gavin’s inferiorities and insecurities, because these threw into delicious contrast the achievements and self-assertion of the twin gods of her life, Howard and Miles. But in the case of Samantha, Gavin’s passivity and caution awoke a feline cruelty; she had a powerful desire to see him slapped awake, pulled into line or otherwise mauled by a feminine surrogate. She bullied him a little in person whenever they met, taking pleasure in the conviction that he found her overwhelming, hard to handle.
‘So how are things going, these days,’ asked Maureen, ‘with his lady friend from London?’
‘She’s not in London any more, Mo. She’s moved into Hope Street,’ said Miles. ‘And if you ask me, he’s regretting he ever went near her. You know Gavin. Born with cold feet.’
Miles had been a few years above Gavin at school, and there was forever a trace of the sixth-form prefect in the way he spoke about his business partner.
‘Dark girl? Very short hair?’
‘That’s her,’ said Miles. ‘Social worker. Flat shoes.’
‘Then we’ve had her in the deli, haven’t we, How?’ said Maureen excitedly. ‘I wouldn’t have had her down as much of a cook, though, not by the look of her.’
Roast loin of pork followed the soup. With the connivance of Howard, Samantha was sliding gently towards contented drunkenness, but something in her was making forlorn protests, like a man swept out to sea. She attempted to drown it in more wine.
A pause rolled out across the table like a fresh tablecloth, pristine and expectant, and this time everybody seemed to know that it was for Howard to set out the new topic. He ate for a while, big mouthfuls washed down with wine, apparently oblivious to their eyes upon him. Finally, having cleared half his plate, he dabbed at his mouth with his napkin and spoke.
‘Yes, it will be interesting to see what happens on council now.’ He was forced to pause to suppress a powerful burp; for a moment he looked as if he might be sick. He thumped his chest. ‘Pardon me. Yes. It’ll be very interesting indeed. With Fairbrother gone’ – business-like, Howard reverted to the form of the name he habitually used – ‘I can’t see his article for the paper coming off. Unless Bends-Your-Ear takes it on, obviously,’ he added.
Howard had dubbed Parminder Jawanda ‘Bends-Your-Ear Bhutto’ after her first attendance as a parish councillor. It was a popular joke among the anti-Fielders.
‘The look on her face,’ said Maureen, addressing Shirley. ‘The look on her face, when we told her. Well … I always thought … you know …’
Samantha pricked up her ears, but Maureen’s insinuation was surely laughable. Parminder was married to the most gorgeous man in Pagford: Vikram, tall and well made, with an aquiline nose, eyes fringed with thick black lashes, and a lazy, knowing smile. For years, Samantha had tossed back her hair and laughed more often than necessary whenever she paused in the street to pass the time of day with Vikram, who had the same kind of body Miles had had before he had given up rugby and become soft and paunchy.
Samantha had heard somewhere, not long after they had become her neighbours, that Vikram and Parminder had had an arranged marriage. She had found this idea unspeakably erotic. Imagine being ordered to marry Vikram, having to do it; she had wrought a little fantasy in which she was veiled and shown into a room, a virgin condemned to her fate … Imagine looking up, and knowing you were getting that … Not to mention the additional frisson of his job: that much responsibility would have given a much uglier man sex appeal …
(Vikram had performed Howard’s quadruple bypass, seven years previously. In consequence, Vikram could not enter Mollison and Lowe without being subjected to a barrage of jocular banter.
‘To the head of the queue, please, Mr Jawanda! Move aside, please, ladies – no, Mr Jawanda, I insist – this man saved my life, patched up the old ticker – what will it be, Mr Jawanda, sir?’
Howard always insisted that Vikram take free samples and a little extra of everything he bought. In consequence, Samantha suspected, of these antics, Vikram almost never entered the delicatessen any more.)
She had lost the thread of the conversation, but it did not matter. The others were still droning on about something that Barry Fairbrother had written to the local paper.
‘… was going to have to talk to him about it,’ boomed Howard. ‘It was a very underhand way of doing things. Well, well, that’s water under the bridge now.
‘What we should be thinking about is who’s going to replace Fairbrother. We shouldn’t underestimate Bends-Your-Ear, however upset she might be. That would be a great mistake. She’s probably trying to rustle up somebody already, so we ought to be thinking about a decent replacement ourselves. Sooner rather than later. Simple matter of good governance.’
‘What will that mean, exactly?’ Miles asked. ‘An election?’
‘Possibly,’ said Howard, with a judicious air, ‘but I doubt it. It’s only a casual vacancy. If there isn’t enough interest in an election – though, as I say, we must not underestimate Bends-Your-Ear – but if she can’t raise nine people to propose a public vote, it’ll be a simple question of co-opting a new councillor. In that case, we’d need nine members’ votes to get the co-option ratified. Nine’s the quorum. Three years of Fairbrother’s term of office left to run. Worth it. Could swing the whole thing, putting one of our side in, instead of Fairbrother.’
Howard drummed his thick fingers against the bowl of his wine glass, looking at his son across the table. Both Shirley and Maureen were watching Miles too, and Miles, Samantha thought, was looking back at his father like a big fat Labrador, quivering in expectation of a treat.
A beat later than she would have done if she had been sober, Samantha realized what this was all about, and why a strangely celebratory air hung over the table. Her intoxication had been liberating, but all of a sudden it was restrictive, for she was not sure that her tongue would be wholly biddable after more than a bottle of wine and a long stretch of silence. She therefore thought the words, rather than speaking them aloud.
You’d better bloody well tell them you’ll need to discuss it with me first, Miles.
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License