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Shirley Mollison spent Wednesdays at South West General in Yarvil. Here, she and a dozen fellow volunteers performed non-medical jobs, such as pushing the library trolley around the beds, looking after patients’ flowers and making trips to the shop in the lobby for those who were bed-ridden and without visitors. Shirley’s favourite activity was going from bed to bed, taking orders for meals. Once, carrying her clipboard and wearing her laminated pass, she had been mistaken by a passing doctor for a hospital administrator.
The idea of volunteering had come to Shirley during her longest ever conversation with Julia Fawley, during one of the wonderful Christmas parties at Sweetlove House. Here, she had learned that Julia was involved in fund-raising for the paediatric wing of the local hospital.
‘What we really need is a royal visit,’ Julia had said, her eyes straying to the door over Shirley’s shoulder. ‘I’m going to get Aubrey to have a quiet word with Norman Bailey. Excuse me, I must say hello to Lawrence …’
Shirley was left standing there beside the grand piano, saying, ‘Oh, of course, of course,’ to thin air. She had no idea who Norman Bailey was, but she felt quite light-headed. The very next day, without even telling Howard what she was up to, she telephoned South West General and asked about volunteer work. Ascertaining that nothing was required but a blameless character, a sound mind and strong legs, she had demanded an application form.
Volunteer work had opened a whole new, glorious world to Shirley. This was the dream that Julia Fawley had inadvertently handed her beside the grand piano: that of herself, standing with her hands clasped demurely in front of her, her laminated pass around her neck, while the Queen moved slowly down a line of beaming helpers. She saw herself dropping a perfect curtsy; the Queen’s attention caught, she stopped to chat; she congratulated Shirley on generously giving her free time … a flash and a photograph, and the newspapers next day … ‘the Queen chats to hospital volunteer Mrs Shirley Mollison …’ Sometimes, when Shirley really concentrated on this imaginary scene, an almost holy feeling came over her.
Volunteering at the hospital had given Shirley a glittering new weapon with which to whittle down Maureen’s pretentions. When Ken’s widow had been transformed, Cinderella-like, from shop-girl to business partner, she had taken on airs that Shirley (though enduring it all with a pussy-cat smile) found infuriating. But Shirley had retaken the higher ground; she worked, not for profit but out of the goodness of her heart. It was classy to volunteer; it was what women did who had no need of extra cash; women like herself and Julia Fawley. What was more, the hospital gave Shirley access to a vast mine of gossip to drown out Maureen’s tedious prattling about the new café.
This morning, Shirley stated her preference for ward twenty-eight in a firm voice to the volunteer supervisor, and was duly sent off to the oncology department. She had made her only friend among the nursing staff on ward twenty-eight; some of the young nurses could be curt and patronizing to the volunteers, but Ruth Price, who had recently returned to nursing after a break of sixteen years, had been charming from the first. They were both, as Shirley put it, Pagford women, which made a bond.
(Though, as it happened, Shirley was not Pagford-born. She and her younger sister had grown up with their mother in a cramped and untidy flat in Yarvil. Shirley’s mother had drunk a lot; she had never divorced the girls’ father, whom they did not see. Local men had all seemed to know Shirley’s mother’s name, and smirked when they said it … but that was a long time ago, and Shirley took the view that the past disintegrated if you never mentioned it. She refused to remember.)
Shirley and Ruth greeted each other with delight, but it was a busy morning and there was no time for anything but the most rudimentary exchange about Barry Fairbrother’s sudden death. They agreed to meet for lunch at half-past twelve, and Shirley strode off to fetch the library trolley.
She was in a wonderful mood. She could see the future as clearly as if it had already happened. Howard, Miles and Aubrey Fawley were going to unite to cut the Fields adrift for ever, and this would be the occasion for a celebratory dinner at Sweetlove House …
Shirley found the place dazzling: the enormous garden with its sundial, its topiary hedges and its ponds; the wide panelled hallway; the silver-framed photograph on the grand piano, showing the owner sharing a joke with the Princess Royal. She detected no condescension whatsoever in the Fawleys’ attitude towards her or her husband; but then there were so many distracting scents competing for her attention whenever she came within the Fawleys’ orbit. She could just imagine the five of them sitting down to a private dinner in one of those delicious little side rooms, Howard sitting next to Julia, she on Aubrey’s right hand, and Miles in between them. (In Shirley’s fantasy, Samantha was unavoidably detained elsewhere.)
Shirley and Ruth found each other by the yoghurts at half-past twelve. The clattering hospital canteen was not yet as crowded as it would be by one, and the nurse and the volunteer found, without too much difficulty, a sticky, crumb-strewn table for two against the wall.
‘How’s Simon? How are the boys?’ asked Shirley, when Ruth had wiped down the table, and they had decanted the contents of their trays and sat facing each other, ready for chat.
‘Si’s fine, thanks, fine. Bringing home our new computer today. The boys can’t wait; you can imagine.’
This was quite untrue. Andrew and Paul both possessed cheap laptops; the PC sat in the corner of the tiny sitting room and neither boy touched it, preferring to do nothing that took them within the vicinity of their father. Ruth often spoke of her sons to Shirley as though they were much younger than they were: portable, tractable, easily amused. Perhaps she sought to make herself younger, to emphasize the age difference between herself and Shirley – which stood at nearly two decades – to make them even more like mother and daughter. Ruth’s mother had died ten years previously; she missed having an older woman in her life, and Shirley’s relationship with her own daughter was, she had hinted to Ruth, not all it could have been.
‘Miles and I have always been very close. Patricia, though, she was always rather a difficult character. She’s up in London now.’
Ruth longed to probe, but a quality that she and Shirley shared and admired in each other was a genteel reticence; a pride in presenting an unruffled surface to the world. Ruth laid her piqued curiosity aside, therefore, though not without a private hope that she would find out, in due course, what made Patricia so difficult.
Shirley and Ruth’s instant liking for each other had been rooted in their mutual recognition that the other was a woman like herself, a woman whose deepest pride lay in having captured and retained the affection of her husband. Like Freemasons, they shared a fundamental code, and were therefore secure in each other’s company in a way that they were not with other women. Their complicity was still more enjoyable for being spiced by a sense of superiority, because each secretly pitied the other for her choice of husband. To Ruth, Howard was physically grotesque, and she was puzzled to understand how her friend, who retained a plump yet delicate prettiness, could ever have agreed to marry him. To Shirley, who could not remember ever setting eyes on Simon, who had never heard him mentioned in connection with the higher workings of Pagford, and who understood Ruth to lack even a rudimentary social life, Ruth’s husband sounded a reclusive inadequate.
‘So I saw Miles and Samantha bringing Barry in,’ Ruth said, launching into the main subject without preamble. She had much less conversational finesse than Shirley, finding it difficult to disguise her greed for Pagford gossip, of which she was deprived, stuck high on the hill above town, isolated by Simon’s unsociability. ‘Did they actually see it happen?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Shirley. ‘They were having dinner at the golf club. Sunday night, you know; the girls were back at school, and Sam prefers eating out, she’s not much of a cook …’
Bit by bit, over their shared coffee breaks, Ruth had learned some of the inside story of Miles and Samantha’s marriage. Shirley had told her how her son had been obliged to marry Samantha, because Samantha had fallen pregnant with Lexie.
‘They’ve made the best of it,’ Shirley sighed, brightly brave. ‘Miles did the right thing; I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The girls are lovely. It’s a pity Miles didn’t have a son; he would have been wonderful with a boy. But Sam didn’t want a third.’
Ruth treasured up every veiled criticism Shirley made of her daughter-in-law. She had taken an immediate dislike to Samantha years before, when she had accompanied four-year-old Andrew to the nursery class at St Thomas’s, and there met Samantha and her daughter Lexie. With her loud laugh, and her boundless cleavage, and a fine line in risqué jokes for the schoolyard mothers, Samantha had struck Ruth as dangerously predatory. For years, Ruth had watched scornfully as Samantha stuck out her massive chest while talking to Vikram Jawanda at parents’ evenings, and steered Simon around the edge of classrooms to avoid having to talk to her.
Shirley was still recounting the second-hand tale of Barry’s final journey, giving all possible weight to Miles’ quick thinking in calling the ambulance, to his support of Mary Fairbrother, to his insistence on remaining with her at the hospital until the Walls arrived. Ruth listened attentively, though with a slight impatience; Shirley was much more entertaining when she was enumerating the inadequacies of Samantha than when extolling the virtues of Miles. What was more, Ruth was bursting with something thrilling that she wished to tell Shirley.
‘So there’s an empty seat on the Parish Council,’ Ruth said, the moment that Shirley reached the point in the story where Miles and Samantha ceded the stage to Colin and Tessa Wall.
‘We call it a casual vacancy,’ said Shirley kindly.
Ruth took a deep breath.
‘Simon,’ she said, excited at the mere telling of it, ‘is thinking of standing!’
Shirley smiled automatically, raised her eyebrows in polite surprise, and took a sip of tea to hide her face. Ruth was completely unaware that she had said anything to discompose her friend. She had assumed that Shirley would be delighted to think of their husbands sitting on the Parish Council together, and had a vague notion that Shirley might be helpful in bringing this about.
‘He told me last night,’ Ruth went on, importantly. ‘He’s been thinking about it for a while.’
Certain other things that Simon had said, about the possibility of taking over bribes from Grays to keep them on as council contractors, Ruth had pushed out of her mind, as she pushed out all of Simon’s little dodges, his petty criminalities.
‘I had no idea Simon was interested in getting involved in local government,’ said Shirley, her tone light and pleasant.
‘Oh yes,’ said Ruth, who had had no idea either, ‘he’s very keen.’
‘Has he been talking to Dr Jawanda?’ asked Shirley, sipping her tea again. ‘Did she suggest standing to him?’
Ruth was thrown by this, and her genuine puzzlement showed.
‘No, I … Simon hasn’t been to the doctor in ages. I mean, he’s very healthy.’
Shirley smiled. If he was acting alone, without the support of the Jawanda faction, then the threat posed by Simon was surely negligible. She even pitied Ruth, who was in for a nasty surprise. She, Shirley, who knew everybody who counted in Pagford, would have been hard-pressed to recognize Ruth’s husband if he came into the delicatessen: who on earth did poor Ruth think would vote for him? On the other hand, Shirley knew that there was one question that Howard and Aubrey would want her to ask as a matter of routine.
‘Simon’s always lived in Pagford, hasn’t he?’
‘No, he was born in the Fields,’ said Ruth.
‘Ah,’ said Shirley.
She peeled back the foil lid of her yoghurt, picked up her spoon and took a thoughtful mouthful. The fact that Simon was likely to have a pro-Fields bias was, whatever his electoral prospects, worth knowing.
‘Will it be on the website, how you put your name forward?’ Ruth asked, still hoping for a late gush of helpfulness and enthusiasm.
‘Oh yes,’ said Shirley vaguely. ‘I expect so.’
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