Непредвиденная вакансия - Часть первая - Среда IV
‘Dr Jawanda’s running about fifteen minutes late,’ the receptionist told Tessa.
‘Oh, that’s fine,’ said Tessa. ‘I’m in no hurry.’
It was early evening, and the waiting-room windows made patches of clear royal blue against the walls. There were only two other people there: a misshapen, wheezing old woman wearing carpet slippers, and a young mother who was reading a magazine while her toddler rummaged in the toy box in the corner. Tessa took a battered old Heat magazine from the table in the middle, sat down and flicked through the pages, looking at the pictures. The delay gave her more time to think about what she was going to say to Parminder.
They had spoken, briefly, on the telephone this morning. Tessa had been full of contrition that she had not called at once to let Parminder know about Barry. Parminder had said it was fine, for Tessa not to be silly, that she was not upset at all; but Tessa, with her lengthy experience of the thin-skinned and fragile, could tell that Parminder, beneath her prickly carapace, was wounded. She had tried to explain that she had been utterly exhausted the last couple of days, and that she had had to deal with Mary, Colin, Fats, Krystal Weedon; that she had felt overwhelmed, lost and incapable of thinking of more than the immediate problems that had been thrown at her. But Parminder had cut her off in the middle of her rambling excuses and said calmly that she would see her later at the surgery.
Dr Crawford emerged, white-haired and bearlike, from his room, gave Tessa a cheery wave, and said, ‘Maisie Lawford?’ The young mother had some difficulty in persuading her daughter to abandon the old toy telephone on wheels that the latter had found in the toy box. While being pulled gently by the hand after Dr Crawford, the little girl gazed longingly over her shoulder at the telephone, whose secrets she would never now discover.
When the door closed on them, Tessa realized that she was smiling fatuously, and hastily rearranged her own features. She was going to become one of those awful old ladies who cooed indiscriminately over small children and frightened them. She would have loved a chubby little blonde daughter to go with her skinny, dark boy. How awful it was, thought Tessa, remembering Fats the toddler, the way tiny ghosts of your living children haunted your heart; they could never know, and would hate it if they did, how their growing was a constant bereavement.
Parminder’s door opened; Tessa looked up.
‘Mrs Weedon,’ said Parminder. Her eyes met Tessa’s, and she gave a smile that was no smile at all, but a mere tightening of the mouth. The little old lady in carpet slippers got up with difficulty and hobbled away around the partition wall after Parminder. Tessa heard Parminder’s surgery door snap shut.
She read the captions to a series of photographs showing a footballer’s wife in all the different outfits she had worn over the previous five days. Studying the young woman’s long thin legs, Tessa wondered how different her life would have been if she had had legs like that. She could not help but suspect that it would have been almost entirely different. Tessa’s legs were thick, shapeless and short; she would have hidden them perpetually in boots, only it was difficult to find many that would zip up over her calves. She remembered telling a sturdy little girl in guidance that looks did not matter, that personality was much more important. What rubbish we tell children, thought Tessa, turning the page of her magazine.
An out-of-sight door opened with a bang. Somebody was shouting in a cracked voice.
‘You’re makin’ me bloody worse. This in’t right. I’ve come to you for help. It’s your job – it’s your—’
Tessa and the receptionist locked eyes, then turned towards the sound of the shouting. Tessa heard Parminder’s voice, its Brummie accent still discernible after all these years in Pagford.
‘Mrs Weedon, you’re still smoking, which affects the dose I have to prescribe you. If you’d give up your cigarettes – smokers metabolize Theophylline more quickly, so the cigarettes are not only worsening your emphysema, but actually affecting the ability of the drug to—’
‘Don’ you shout at me! I’ve ’ad enough of you! I’ll report you! You’ve gave me the wrong fuckin’ pills! I wanna see someone else! I wanna see Dr Crawford!’
The old lady appeared around the wall, wobbling, wheezing, her face scarlet.
‘She’ll be the death of me, that Paki cow! Don’ you go near ’er!’ she shouted at Tessa. ‘She’ll fuckin’ kill yer with her drugs, the Paki bitch!’
She tottered towards the exit, spindle-shanked, unsteady on her slippered feet, her breath rattling, swearing as loudly as her beleaguered lungs would permit. The door swung shut behind her. The receptionist exchanged another look with Tessa. They heard Parminder’s surgery door close again.
It was five minutes before Parminder reappeared. The receptionist stared ostentatiously at her screen.
‘Mrs Wall,’ said Parminder, with another tight non-smile.
‘What was that about?’ Tessa asked, when she had taken a seat at the end of Parminder’s desk.
‘Mrs Weedon’s new pills are upsetting her stomach,’ said Parminder calmly. ‘So we’re doing your bloods today, aren’t we?’
‘Yes,’ said Tessa, both intimidated and hurt by Parminder’s cold professional demeanour. ‘How are you doing, Minda?’
‘Me?’ said Parminder. ‘I’m fine. Why?’
‘Well … Barry … I know what he meant to you and what you meant to him.’
Tears welled in Parminder’s eyes and she tried to blink them away, but too late; Tessa had seen them.
‘Minda,’ she said, laying her plump hand on Parminder’s thin one, but Parminder whipped it away as if Tessa had stung her; then, betrayed by her own reflex, she began to cry in earnest, unable to hide in the tiny room, though she had turned her back as nearly as she could in her swivel chair.
‘I felt sick when I realized I hadn’t phoned you,’ Tessa said, over Parminder’s furious attempts to quell her own sobs. ‘I wanted to curl up and die. I meant to call,’ she lied, ‘but we hadn’t slept, we spent almost the whole night at the hospital, then we had to go straight out to work. Colin broke down at assembly when he announced it, then he caused a bloody awful scene with Krystal Weedon in front of everyone. And then Stuart decided to play truant. And Mary’s falling apart … but I’m so sorry, Minda, I should’ve called.’
‘… iculous,’ said Parminder thickly, her face hidden behind a tissue she had pulled out from her sleeve. ‘… Mary … most important …’
‘You would have been one of the very first people Barry called,’ said Tessa sadly, and, to her horror, she burst into tears too.
‘Minda, I’m so sorry,’ she sobbed, ‘but I was having to deal with Colin and all the rest of them.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ said Parminder, gulping as she dabbed at her thin face. ‘We’re being silly.’
No, we’re not. Oh, let go for once, Parminder …
But the doctor squared her thin shoulders, blew her nose and sat up straight again.
‘Did Vikram tell you?’ asked Tessa timidly, tweaking a handful of tissues from the box on Parminder’s desk.
‘No,’ said Parminder. ‘Howard Mollison. In the deli.’
‘Oh God, Minda, I’m so sorry.’
‘Don’t be silly. It’s fine.’
Crying had made Parminder feel slightly better; friendlier towards Tessa, who was wiping her own plain, kind face. This was a relief, for now that Barry was gone, Tessa was Parminder’s only real friend in Pagford. (She always said ‘in Pagford’ to herself, pretending that somewhere beyond the little town she had a hundred loyal friends. She never quite admitted to herself that these consisted only of the memories of her gang of school mates back in Birmingham, from whom the tide of life had long since separated her; and the medical colleagues with whom she had studied and trained, who still sent Christmas cards, but who never came to see her, and whom she never visited.)
‘How’s Colin?’
Tessa moaned.
‘Oh, Minda … Oh God. He says he’s going to run for Barry’s seat on the Parish Council.’
The pronounced vertical furrow between Parminder’s thick, dark brows deepened.
‘Can you imagine Colin running for election?’ Tessa asked, her sodden tissues crumpled tightly in her fist. ‘Coping with the likes of Aubrey Fawley and Howard Mollison? Trying to fill Barry’s shoes, telling himself he’s got to win the battle for Barry – all the responsibility—’
‘Colin copes with a lot of responsibility at work,’ said Parminder.
‘Barely,’ said Tessa, without thinking. She felt instantly disloyal and started to cry again. It was so strange; she had entered the surgery thinking that she would offer comfort to Parminder, but instead here she was, pouring out her own troubles instead. ‘You know what Colin’s like, he takes everything to heart so much, he takes everything so personally …’
‘He copes very well, you know, all things considered,’ said Parminder.
‘Oh, I know he does,’ said Tessa wearily. The fight seemed to go out of her. ‘I know.’
Colin was almost the only person towards whom stern, self-contained Parminder showed ready compassion. In return, Colin would never hear a word against her; he was her dogged champion in Pagford; ‘An excellent GP’, he would snap at anyone who dared to criticize her in his hearing. ‘Best I’ve ever had.’ Parminder did not have many defenders; she was unpopular with the Pagford old guard, having a reputation for being grudging with antibiotics and repeat prescriptions.
‘If Howard Mollison gets his way, there won’t be an election at all,’ said Parminder.
‘What d’you mean?’
‘He’s sent round an email. It came in half an hour ago.’
Parminder turned to her computer monitor, typed in a password, and brought up her inbox. She angled the monitor so that Tessa could read Howard’s message. The first paragraph expressed regret at Barry’s death. The next suggested that, in view of the fact that a year of Barry’s term had already expired, co-opting a replacement might be preferable to going through the onerous process of a full election.
‘He’s lined someone up already,’ said Parminder. ‘He’s trying to crowbar in some crony before anyone can stop him. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Miles.’
‘Oh, surely not,’ said Tessa instantly. ‘Miles was at the hospital with Barry … no, he was very upset by it—’
‘You’re so damn naive, Tessa,’ said Parminder, and Tessa was shocked by the savagery in her friend’s voice. ‘You don’t understand what Howard Mollison’s like. He’s a vile man, vile. You didn’t hear him when he found out that Barry had written to the paper about the Fields. You don’t know what he’s trying to do with the methadone clinic. You wait. You’ll see.’
Her hand was trembling so much that it took her a few attempts to close down Mollison’s email.
‘You’ll see,’ she repeated. ‘All right, we’d better get on, Laura needs to go in a minute. I’ll check your blood pressure first.’
Parminder was doing Tessa a favour, seeing her late like this, after school. The practice nurse, who lived in Yarvil, was going to drop off Tessa’s blood sample to the hospital lab on her way home. Feeling nervous and oddly vulnerable, Tessa rolled up the sleeve of the old green cardigan. The doctor wound the Velcro cuff around her upper arm. At close quarters, Parminder’s strong resemblance to her second daughter was revealed, for their different builds (Parminder being wiry, and Sukhvinder buxom) became indiscernible, and the similarity of their facial features emerged: the hawkish nose, the wide mouth with its full lower lip, and the large, round, dark eyes. The cuff tightened painfully around Tessa’s flabby upper arm, while Parminder watched the gauge.
‘One sixty-five over eighty-eight,’ said Parminder, frowning. ‘That’s high, Tessa; too high.’
Deft and skilful in all her movements, she stripped the wrapping from a sterile syringe, straightened out Tessa’s pale, mole-strewn arm and slid the needle into the crook.
‘I’m taking Stuart into Yarvil tomorrow night,’ Tessa said, looking up at the ceiling. ‘To get him a suit for the funeral. I can’t stand the scene there’ll be, if he tries to go in jeans. Colin’ll go berserk.’
She was trying to divert her own thoughts from the dark, mysterious liquid flowing up into the little plastic tube. She was afraid that it would betray her; that she had not been as good as she should have been; that all the chocolate bars and muffins she had eaten would show up as traitorous glucose.
Then she thought bitterly that it would be much easier to resist chocolate if her life were less stressful. Given that she spent nearly all her time trying to help other people, it was hard to see muffins as so very naughty. As she watched Parminder labelling vials of her blood, she found herself hoping, though her husband and friend might think it heresy, that Howard Mollison would triumph, and prevent an election happening at all.
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