Непредвиденная вакансия - Часть первая - Среда V
Simon Price left the printworks on the stroke of five every day without fail. He had put in his hours, and that was that; home was waiting, clean and cool, high on the hill, a world away from the perpetual clank and whirr of the Yarvil plant. To linger in the factory after clocking-off time (though now a manager, Simon had never ceased to think in the terms of his apprenticeship) would constitute a fatal admission that your home life was lacking or, worse, that you were trying to brown-nose senior management.
Today, though, Simon needed to make a detour before going home. He met up with the gum-chewing forklift driver in the car park, and together they drove through the darkening streets, with the boy giving directions, into the Fields, actually passing the house in which Simon had grown up. He had not been past the place for years; his mother was dead, and he had not seen his father since he was fourteen and did not know where he was. It unsettled and depressed Simon to see his old home with one window boarded over and the grass ankle-deep. His late mother had been house proud.
The youth told Simon to park at the end of Foley Road, then got out, leaving Simon behind, and headed towards a house of particularly squalid appearance. From what Simon could see by the light of the nearest streetlamp, it seemed to have a pile of filth heaped beneath a downstairs window. It was only now that Simon asked himself how sensible it had been to come and pick up the stolen computer in his own car. These days, surely, they would have CCTV on the estate, to keep an eye on all the little thugs and hoodies. He glanced around, but he could not see any cameras; nobody seemed to be looking at him except a fat woman who was openly staring through one of the small, square institutional-looking windows. Simon scowled at her, but she continued to watch him as she smoked her cigarette, so he screened his face with his hand, glaring through the windscreen.
His passenger was already emerging from the house, straddling a little as he walked back towards the car, carrying the boxed computer. Behind him, in the doorway of the house he had left, Simon saw an adolescent girl with a small boy at her feet, who stepped out of sight as he watched, dragging the child with her.
Simon turned the key in the ignition, revving the engine as the gum-chewer came nearer.
‘Careful,’ said Simon, leaning across to unlock the passenger door. ‘Just put it down here.’
The boy set the box down on the still-warm passenger seat. Simon had intended to open it and check that it was what he had paid for, but a growing sense of his own imprudence overrode the desire. He contented himself with giving the box a shove: it was too heavy to move easily; he wanted to get going.
‘You all right if I leave you here?’ he called loudly to the boy, as if he was already speeding away from him in the car.
‘Can you give us a lift up to the Crannock Hotel?’
‘Sorry, mate, I’m going the other way,’ said Simon. ‘Cheers.’
Simon accelerated. In his rear-view mirror he saw the boy standing there, looking outraged; saw his lips form the words ‘fuck you!’ But Simon didn’t care. If he cleared out quickly, he might avoid his number plate being captured on one of those grainy black and white films they played back on the news.
He reached the bypass ten minutes later, but even after he had left Yarvil behind, quitted the dual carriageway and driven up the hill towards the ruined abbey, he was ruffled and tense, and experienced none of the satisfaction that was usually his when he crested the peak in the evenings and caught the first glimpse of his own house, far across the hollow where Pagford lay, a tiny white handkerchief on the opposite hillside.
Though she had been home barely ten minutes, Ruth already had dinner on and was laying the table when Simon carried the computer inside; they kept early hours in Hilltop House, as was Simon’s preference. Ruth’s exclamations of excitement at the sight of the box irritated her husband. She did not understand what he had been through; she never understood that there were risks involved in getting stuff cheap. For her part, Ruth sensed at once that Simon was in one of the tightly wound moods that often presaged an explosion, and coped the only way she knew how: by jabbering brightly about her day, in the hope that the mood would dissolve once he had food inside him, and as long as nothing else happened to irritate him.
Promptly at six o’clock, by which time Simon had unboxed the computer and discovered that there was no instruction manual, the family sat down to eat.
Andrew could tell that his mother was on edge, because she was making random conversation with a familiar, artificially cheery note in her voice. She seemed to think, despite years of contrary experience, that if she made the atmosphere polite enough, his father would not dare shatter it. Andrew helped himself to shepherd’s pie (made by Ruth, and defrosted on work nights) and avoided eye contact with Simon. He had more interesting things to think about than his parents. Gaia Bawden had said ‘hi’ to him when he had come face to face with her outside the biology lab; said it automatically and casually, but had not looked at him once all lesson.
Andrew wished he knew more about girls; he had never got to know one well enough to fathom how their minds worked. The yawning gap in his knowledge had not mattered much until Gaia had walked onto the school bus for the first time, and provoked in him a laser-sharp interest focused on her as an individual; a quite different feeling to the wide and impersonal fascination that had been intensifying in him over several years, concerned with the sprouting of breasts and the appearance of bra straps through white school shirts, and his slightly squeamish interest in what menstruation actually entailed.
Fats had girl cousins who sometimes came to visit. Once, going into the Walls’ bathroom right after the prettiest of them had used it, Andrew had found a transparent Lil-Lets wrapper lying beside the bathroom bin. This actual, physical evidence that a girl in his vicinity was having a period there and then was, to thirteen-year-old Andrew, akin to the sighting of a rare comet. He had had enough sense not to tell Fats what he had seen or found or how exciting a discovery it had been. Instead he had picked up the wrapper between his fingernails, dropped it quickly into the bin, then washed his hands more vigorously than he had ever washed them in his life.
Andrew spent a lot of time staring at Gaia’s Facebook page on his laptop. It was almost more intimidating than she was in person. He spent hours poring over photographs of the people that she had left behind in the capital. She came from a different world: she had black friends, Asian friends, friends with names he could never have pronounced. There was a photograph of her in a swimsuit that was burnt into his brain, and another of her, leaning up against a filthily good-looking coffee-skinned boy. He had no spots, and actual stubble. By a process of careful examination of all her messages, Andrew had concluded that this was an eighteen-year-old called Marco de Luca. Andrew stared at Marco’s and Gaia’s communications with the concentration of a code-breaker, unable to decide whether they indicated a continuing relationship or not.
His Facebook browsing was often tinged with anxiety, because Simon, whose understanding of how the internet worked was limited, and who instinctively mistrusted it as the only area of his sons’ life where they were freer and more at ease than he, would sometimes erupt unexpectedly into their bedrooms to check what they were viewing. Simon claimed that he was making sure that they were not running up huge bills, but Andrew knew it to be one more manifestation of his father’s need to exert control, and the cursor hovered constantly over the box that would shut the page whenever he was perusing Gaia’s details online.
Ruth was still rattling from topic to topic, in a fruitless attempt to make Simon produce more than surly monosyllables.
‘Ooooh,’ she said suddenly. ‘I forgot: I spoke to Shirley today, Simon, about you maybe standing for the Parish Council.’
The words hit Andrew like a punch.
‘You’re standing for the council?’ he blurted.
Simon slowly raised his eyebrows. One of the muscles in his jaw was twitching.
‘Is that a problem?’ he asked, in a voice that throbbed with aggression.
‘No,’ lied Andrew.
You’ve got to be fucking joking. You? Standing for election? Oh fuck, no.
‘It sounds like you’ve got a problem with it,’ said Simon, still staring straight into Andrew’s eyes.
‘No,’ said Andrew again, dropping his gaze to his shepherd’s pie.
‘What’s wrong with me standing for the council?’ Simon continued. He was not about to let it go. He wanted to vent his tension in a cathartic outburst of rage.
‘Nothing’s wrong. I was surprised, that’s all.’
‘Should I have consulted you first?’ said Simon.
‘Oh, thank you,’ said Simon. His lower jaw was protruding, as it often did when he was working up to losing control. ‘Have you found a job yet, you skiving, sponging little shit?’
Simon glared at Andrew, not eating, but holding a cooling forkful of shepherd’s pie in mid-air. Andrew switched his attention back to his food, determined not to offer further provocation. The air pressure within the kitchen seemed to have increased. Paul’s knife rattled against his plate.
‘Shirley says,’ Ruth piped up again, her voice high-pitched, determined to pretend all was well until this became impossible, ‘that it’ll be on the council website, Simon. About how you put your name forward.’
Simon did not respond.
Her last, best attempt thwarted, Ruth fell silent too. She was afraid that she might know what was at the root of Simon’s bad mood. Anxiety gnawed at her; she was a worrier, she always had been; she couldn’t help it. She knew that it drove Simon mad when she begged him for reassurance. She must not say anything.
‘It’s all right, isn’t it? About the computer?’
She was a dreadful actress. She tried to make her voice casual and calm, but it was brittle and high-pitched.
This was not the first time stolen goods had entered their home. Simon had found a way of fiddling the electricity meter too, and did small jobs on the side, at the printworks, for cash. All of it gave her little pains in the stomach, kept her awake at night; but Simon was contemptuous of people who did not dare take the shortcuts (and part of what she had loved about him, from the beginning, was that this rough and wild boy, who was contemptuous, rude and aggressive to nearly everyone, had taken the trouble to attract her; that he, who was so difficult to please, had selected her, alone, as worthy).
‘What are you talking about?’ Simon asked quietly. The full focus of his attention shifted from Andrew to Ruth, and was expressed by the same unblinking, venomous stare.
‘Well, there won’t be any … any trouble about it, will there?’
Simon was seized with a brutal urge to punish her for intuiting his own fears and for stoking them with her anxiety.
‘Yeah, well, I wasn’t going to say anything,’ he said, speaking slowly, giving himself time to make up a story; ‘but there was a bit of trouble when they were nicked, as it turns out.’ Andrew and Paul paused in their eating and stared. ‘Some security guard got beaten up. I didn’t know anything about it till it was too late. I only hope there’s no comeback.’
Ruth could barely breathe. She could not believe the evenness of his tone, the calmness with which he spoke of violent robbery. This explained his mood when he had come home; this explained everything.
‘That’s why it’s essential nobody mentions we’ve got it,’ said Simon.
He subjected each of them to a fierce glare, to impress the dangers on them by sheer force of personality.
‘We won’t,’ Ruth breathed.
Her rapid imagination was already showing her the police at the door; the computer examined; Simon arrested, wrongly accused of aggravated assault – jailed.
‘Did you hear Dad?’ she said to her sons, in a voice barely louder than a whisper. ‘You mustn’t tell anybody we’ve got a new computer.’
‘It should be all right,’ said Simon. ‘It should be fine. As long as everyone keeps their traps shut.’
He turned his attention back to his shepherd’s pie. Ruth’s eyes flittered from Simon to her sons and back again. Paul was pushing food around his plate, silent, frightened.
But Andrew had not believed a word his father said.
You’re a lying fucking bastard. You just like scaring her.
When the meal was finished, Simon got up and said, ‘Well, let’s see whether the bloody thing works, at least. You,’ he pointed at Paul, ‘go and get it out of the box and put it carefully – carefully – on the stand. You,’ he pointed at Andrew, ‘you do computing, don’t you? You can tell me what to do.’
Simon led the way into the sitting room. Andrew knew that he was trying to catch them out, that he wanted them to mess up: Paul, who was small and nervous, might drop the computer, and he, Andrew, was sure to blunder. Behind them in the kitchen, Ruth was clattering around, clearing away the dinner things. She, at least, was out of the immediate line of fire.
Andrew went to assist Paul as he lifted the hard drive.
‘He can do it, he’s not that much of a pussy!’ snapped Simon.
By a miracle, Paul, his arms trembling, set it down on the stand without mishap, then waited with his arms dangling limply at his sides, blocking Simon’s access to the machine.
‘Get out of my way, you stupid little prick,’ Simon shouted. Paul scurried off to watch from behind the sofa. Simon picked up a lead at random and addressed Andrew.
‘Where do I put this?’
Up your arse, you bastard.
‘If you give it to me—’
‘I’m asking where I fucking put it!’ roared Simon. ‘You do computing – tell me where it goes!’
Andrew leaned around the back of the computer; he instructed Simon wrong at first, but then, by chance, got the right socket.
They had nearly finished by the time Ruth joined them in the sitting room. Andrew could tell, from one fleeting look at her, that she did not want the thing to work; that she wanted Simon to dump it somewhere, and never mind the eighty quid.
Simon sat down in front of the monitor. After several fruitless attempts, he realized that the cordless mouse had no batteries in it. Paul was sent sprinting from the room to fetch some from the kitchen. When he held them out to his father on his return, Simon snatched them out of his hand, as if Paul might try and whip them away.
His tongue down between his lower teeth and his lip, so that his chin bulged out stupidly, Simon made an exaggerated over-fiddling business of inserting the batteries. He always pulled this mad, brutish face as a warning that he was reaching the end of his tether, descending into the place where he could not be held accountable for his actions. Andrew imagined walking out and leaving his father to it, depriving him of the audience he preferred when working himself up; he could almost feel the mouse hitting him behind the ear as, in his imagination, he turned his back.
‘Get – fucking – IN!’
Simon began to emit the low, animal noise, unique to him, that matched his aggressively wadded face.
‘Uhhlll … uhhlll … CUNTING THING! You fucking do it! You! You’ve got pissy little girl’s fingers!’
Simon slammed the control and the batteries into Paul’s chest. Paul’s hands shook as he fitted the little metal tubes into place; he snapped the plastic cover shut and held the controls back out to his father.
‘Thank you, Pauline.’
Simon’s chin was still jutting like a Neanderthal’s. He habitually acted as though inanimate objects were conspiring to irritate him. Once again he placed the mouse on the mat.
Let it work.
A small white arrow appeared on screen and swooped cheerily around at Simon’s command.
A tourniquet of fear was released; relief gushed through three of the watchers; Simon stopped pulling his Neanderthal face. Andrew visualized a line of Japanese men and woman in white coats: the people who had assembled this flawless machine, all of them with delicate, dextrous fingers like Paul’s; they were bowing to him, sweetly civilized and gentle. Silently, Andrew blessed them and their families. They would never know how much had hung on this particular machine working.
Ruth, Andrew and Paul waited attentively while Simon put the computer through its paces. He brought up menus, had difficulty getting rid of them, clicked icons whose functions he did not understand, and was confused by the outcomes, but he had descended from the plateau of dangerous rage. Having blundered his way back to the desktop, he said, looking up at Ruth, ‘Seems all right, doesn’t it?’
‘It’s great!’ she said at once, forcing a smile, as though the last half-hour had not happened, he had bought the machine at Dixons, and connected it without the threat of violence. ‘It’s faster, Simon. Much faster than the last one.’
He hasn’t opened the internet yet, you silly woman.
‘Yeah, I thought that too.’
He glared at his two sons.
‘This is brand new and expensive, so you two treat it with respect, you understand? And don’t tell anyone we’ve got it,’ Simon added, and a gust of renewed malice chilled the room. ‘All right? Do you understand me?’
They nodded again. Paul’s face was tight and pinched. Unseen by his father, he traced a figure of eight on the outside of his leg with his slender forefinger.
‘And one of you draw the bloody curtains. Why are they still open?’
Because we’ve all been standing here, watching you behave like a prick.
Andrew pulled the curtains shut and left the room.
Even after he had reached his bedroom and lain back down on his bed, Andrew was unable to resume his pleasurable meditations on the person of Gaia Bawden. The prospect of his father standing for the council had loomed out of nowhere like some gigantic iceberg, casting its shadow over everything, even Gaia.
For all of Andrew’s life, Simon had been a contented prisoner of his own contempt for other people, making his house a fortress against the world where his will was law, and where his mood constituted the family’s daily weather. As he had grown older, Andrew had become aware that his family’s almost total isolation was not typical, and become slightly embarrassed by it. Friends’ parents would ask him where he lived, unable to place his family; they would ask casual questions about whether his mother or father intended to come to social events or fundraisers. Sometimes they remembered Ruth from the primary school years, when mothers mixed in the playground. She was much more sociable than Simon. Perhaps, if she had not married such an antisocial man, she would have been more like Fats’ mother, meeting friends for lunch or dinner, busily connected to the town.
On the very rare occasions that Simon came face to face with a person whom he felt it worth courting, he adopted a salt-of-the-earth bluff persona that made Andrew cringe. Simon would talk over them, crack clumsy jokes and often stepped, unwittingly, on all kinds of sensitivities, because he neither knew anything, nor cared much, about the people with whom he was forced to converse. Lately, Andrew had asked himself whether Simon even saw other humans as real.
Why his father had been seized with the aspiration to perform on a wider stage, Andrew could not fathom, but calamity was surely inevitable. Andrew knew other parents, the sort who did sponsored cycle rides to raise money for the Square’s new Christmas lights, or ran the Brownies, or set up book clubs. Simon did nothing that required collaboration, and had never evinced the smallest interest in anything that did not benefit him directly.
Awful visions surged in Andrew’s churning mind: Simon making a speech larded with the transparent lies that his wife swallowed whole; Simon pulling his Neanderthal face in an attempt to intimidate an opponent; Simon losing control and starting to spew all his favourite swearwords into a microphone: cunting, fucking, pissy, shit …
Andrew pulled his laptop towards him, but pushed it away again almost at once. He made no move to touch the mobile on his desk. This magnitude of anxiety and shame could not be contained in an instant message or a text; he was alone with it, and even Fats would not understand, and he did not know what to do.
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