Непредвиденная вакансия - Часть первая - Суббота II
Andrew Price took the handlebars of his father’s racing bicycle and walked it carefully out of the garage, making sure that he did not scrape the car. Down the stone steps and through the metal gate he carried it; then, in the lane, he put his foot on one pedal, scooted a few yards and swung his other leg over the saddle. He soared left onto the vertiginously sloping hillside road and sped, without touching his brakes, down towards Pagford.
The hedgerows and sky blurred; he imagined himself in a velodrome as the wind whipped his clean hair and his stinging face, which he had just scrubbed clean. Level with the Fairbrothers’ wedge-shaped garden he applied the brakes, because some months previously he had taken this sharp turn too fast and fallen off, and had had to return home immediately with his jeans ripped open and grazes all down one side of his face …
He freewheeled, with only one hand on the bars, into Church Row, and enjoyed a second, though lesser, downhill burst of speed, slightly checked when he saw that they were loading a coffin onto a hearse outside the church, and that a dark-clothed crowd was spilling out between the heavy wooden doors. Andrew pedalled furiously around the corner and out of sight. He did not want to see Fats emerging from church with a distraught Cubby, wearing the cheap suit and tie that he had described with comical disgust during yesterday’s English lesson. It would have been like interrupting his friend having a crap.
As Andrew cycled slowly around the Square, he slicked his hair back off his face with one hand, wondering what the cold air had done to his purple-red acne and whether the anti-bacterial face wash had done anything to soothe the angry look of it. And he told himself the cover story: he had come from Fats’ house (which he might have done, there was no reason why not), which meant that Hope Street was as obvious a route down to the river as cutting through the first side street. Therefore there was no need for Gaia Bawden (if she happened to be looking out of the window of her house, and happened to see him, and happened to recognize him) to think that he had come this way because of her. Andrew did not anticipate having to explain to her his reason for cycling up her street, but he still held the fake story in his mind, because he believed it gave him an air of cool detachment.
He simply wanted to know which was her house. Twice already, at weekends, he had cycled along the short terraced street, every nerve in his body tingling, but he had been unable, as yet, to discover which house harboured the Grail. All he knew, from his furtive glimpses through the dirty school-bus windows, was that she lived on the right hand even-numbered side.
As he turned the corner, he tried to compose his features, acting the part of a man cycling slowly towards the river by the most direct route, lost in his own serious thoughts, but ready to acknowledge a classmate, should they show themselves …
She was there. On the pavement. Andrew’s legs continued to pump, though he could not feel the pedals, and he was suddenly aware how thin the tyres were on which he balanced. She was rummaging in her leather handbag, her copper-brown hair hanging around her face. Number ten on the door ajar behind her, and a black T-shirt falling short of her waist; a band of bare skin, and a heavy belt and tight jeans … when he was almost past her, she closed the door and turned; her hair fell back from her beautiful face, and she said, quite clearly, in her London voice, ‘Oh, hi.’
‘Hi,’ he said. His legs kept pedalling. Six feet away, twelve feet away; why hadn’t he stopped? Shock kept him moving, he dared not look back; he was at the end of her street already; for fuck’s sake don’t fall off; he turned the corner, too stunned to gauge whether he was more relieved or disappointed that he had left her behind.
Holy shit.
He cycled on towards the wooded area at the base of Pargetter Hill, where the river glinted intermittently through the trees, but he could see nothing except Gaia burned onto his retina like neon. The narrow road turned into an earthy footpath, and the gentle breeze off the water caressed his face, which he did not think had turned red, because it had all happened so quickly.
‘Fucking hell!’ he said aloud to the fresh air and the deserted path.
He raked excitedly through this magnificent, unexpected treasure trove: her perfect body, revealed in tight denim and stretchy cotton; number ten behind her, on a chipped, shabby blue door; ‘oh, hi’, easily and naturally – so his features were definitely logged somewhere in the mind that lived behind the astonishing face.
The bike jolted on the newly pebbly and rough ground. Elated, Andrew dismounted only when he began to overbalance. He wheeled the bicycle on through the trees, emerging onto the narrow riverbank, where he slung the bicycle down on the ground among the wood anemones that had opened like tiny white stars since his last visit.
His father had said, when he first started to borrow the bike: ‘You chain it up if you’re going in a shop. I’m warning you, if that gets nicked …’
But the chain was not long enough to go around any of the trees and, in any case, the further he rode from his father the less Andrew feared him. Still thinking about the inches of flat, bare midriff and Gaia’s exquisite face, Andrew strode to the place where the bank met the eroded side of the hill, which hung like an earthy, rocky cliff in a sheer face above the fast-flowing green water.
The narrowest lip of slippery, crumbling bank ran along the bottom of the hillside. The only way of navigating it, if your feet had grown to be twice the length they had been when they had first made the trip, was to edge along sideways, pressed to the sheer face, holding tight to roots and bits of protruding rock.
The mulchy green smell of the river and of wet soil was deeply familiar to Andrew, as was the sensation of this narrow ledge of earth and grass under his feet, and the cracks and rocks he sought with his hands on the hillside. He and Fats had found the secret place when they were eleven years old. They had known that what they were doing was forbidden and dangerous; they had been warned about the river. Terrified, but determined not to tell each other so, they had sidled along this tricky ledge, grabbing at anything that protruded from the rocky wall and, at the very narrowest point, clutching fistfuls of each other’s T-shirts.
Years of practice enabled Andrew, though his mind was barely on the job, to move crab-wise along the solid wall of earth and rock with the water gushing three feet beneath his trainers; then with a deft duck and swing, he was inside the fissure in the hillside that they had found so long ago. Back then, it had seemed like a divine reward for their daring. He could no longer stand up in it; but, slightly larger than a two-man tent, it was big enough for two teenage boys to lie, side by side, with the river rushing past and the trees dappling their view of the sky, framed by the triangular entrance.
The first time they had been here, they had poked and dug at the back wall with sticks, but they had not found a secret passageway leading to the abbey above; so they gloried instead in the fact that they alone had discovered the hiding place, and swore that it would be their secret in perpetuity. Andrew had a vague memory of a solemn oath, spit and swearwords. They had called it the Cave when they had first discovered it, but it was now, and had been for some time past, the Cubby Hole.
The little recess smelt earthy, though the sloping ceiling was made of rock. A dark green tidemark showed that it had flooded in the past, not quite to the roof. The floor was covered in their cigarette butts and cardboard roaches. Andrew sat down, with his legs dangling over the sludge-green water, and pulled his cigarettes and lighter out of his jacket, bought with the last of his birthday money, now that his allowance had been stopped. He lit up, inhaled deeply, and relived the glorious encounter with Gaia Bawden in as much detail as he could ring out of it: narrow waist and curving hips; creamy skin between leather and T-shirt; full, wide mouth; ‘oh, hi’. It was the first time he had seen her out of school uniform. Where was she going, alone with her leather handbag? What was there in Pagford for her to do on a Saturday morning? Was she perhaps catching the bus into Yarvil? What did she get up to when she was out of his sight; what feminine mysteries absorbed her?
And he asked himself for the umpteenth time whether it was conceivable that flesh and bone wrought like that could contain a banal personality. It was only Gaia who had ever made him wonder this: the idea of body and soul as separate entities had never once occurred to him until he had clapped eyes on her. Even while trying to imagine what her breasts would look and feel like, judged by the visual evidence he had managed to gather through a slightly translucent school shirt, and what he knew was a white bra, he could not believe that the allure she held for him was exclusively physical. She had a way of moving that moved him as much as music, which was what moved him most of all. Surely the spirit animating that peerless body must be unusual too? Why would nature make a vessel like that, if not to contain something still more valuable?
Andrew knew what naked women looked like, because there were no parental controls on the computer in Fats’ conversion bedroom. Together they had explored as much online porn as they could access for free: shaven vulvas; pink labia pulled wide to show darkly gaping slits; spread buttocks revealing the puckered buttons of anuses; thickly lipsticked mouths, dripping semen. Andrew’s excitement was underpinned, always, by the panicky awareness that you could only hear Mrs Wall approaching the room when she reached the creaking halfway stair. Sometimes they found weirdness that made them roar with laughter, even when Andrew was unsure whether he was more excited or repulsed (whips and saddles, harnesses, ropes, hoses; and once, at which even Fats had not managed to laugh, close-ups of metal-bolted contraptions, and needles protruding from soft flesh, and women’s faces frozen, screaming).
Together he and Fats had become connoisseurs of silicone-enhanced breasts, enormous, taut and round.
‘Plastic,’ one of them would point out, matter of factly, as they sat in front of the monitor with the door wedged shut against Fats’ parents. The on-screen blonde’s arms were raised as she sat astride some hairy man, her big brown-nippled breasts hanging off her narrow rib cage like bowling balls, thin, shiny purple lines under each of them showing where the silicone had been inserted. You could almost tell how they would feel, looking at them: firm, as if there were a football underneath the skin. Andrew could imagine nothing more erotic than a natural breast; soft and spongy and perhaps a little springy, and the nipples (he hoped) contrastingly hard.
And all of these images blurred in his mind, late at night, with the possibilities offered by real girls, human girls, and the little you managed to feel through clothes if you managed to move in close enough. Niamh was the less pretty of the Fairbrother twins, but she had been the more willing, in the stuffy drama hall, during the Christmas disco. Half hidden by the musty stage curtain in a dark corner, they had pressed against each other, and Andrew had put his tongue into her mouth. His hands had inched as far as her bra strap and no further, because she kept pulling away. He had been driven, chiefly, by the knowledge that somewhere outside in the darkness, Fats was going further. And now his brain teemed and throbbed with Gaia. She was both the sexiest girl he had ever seen and the source of another, entirely inexplicable yearning. Certain chord changes, certain beats, made the very core of him shiver, and so did something about Gaia Bawden.
He lit a new cigarette from the end of the first and threw the butt into the water below. Then he heard a familiar scuffling, and leaned forward to see Fats, still wearing his funeral suit, spread-eagled on the hill wall, moving from hand-hold to hand-hold as he edged along the narrow lip of bank, towards the opening where Andrew sat.
Andrew pulled in his legs to give Fats room to climb into the Cubby Hole.
‘Fucking hell,’ said Fats, when he had clambered inside. He was spider-like in his awkwardness, with his long limbs, his skinniness emphasized by the black suit.
Andrew handed him a cigarette. Fats always lit up as though he were in a high wind, one hand cupped around the flame to shield it, scowling slightly. He inhaled, blew a smoke ring out of the Cubby Hole and loosened the dark grey tie around his neck. He appeared older and not, after all, so very foolish in the suit, which bore traces of earth on the knees and cuffs from the journey to the cave.
‘You’d think they were bum chums,’ Fats said, after he had taken another powerful drag on his cigarette.
‘Cubby upset, was he?’
‘Upset? He’s having fucking hysterics. He’s given himself hiccups. He’s worse than the fucking widow.’
Andrew laughed. Fats blew another smoke ring and pulled at one of his overlarge ears.
‘I bowed out early. They haven’t even buried him yet.’
They smoked in silence for a minute, both looking out at the sludgy river. As he smoked, Andrew contemplated the words ‘bowed out early’, and the amount of autonomy Fats seemed to have, compared to himself. Simon and his fury stood between Andrew and too much freedom: in Hilltop House, you sometimes copped for punishment simply because you were present. Andrew’s imagination had once been caught by a strange little module in their philosophy and religion class, in which primitive gods had been discussed in all their arbitrary wrath and violence, and the attempts of early civilizations to placate them. He had thought then of the nature of justice as he had come to know it: of his father as a pagan god, and of his mother as the high priestess of the cult, who attempted to interpret and intercede, usually failing, yet still insisting, in the face of all the evidence, that there was an underlying magnanimity and reasonableness to her deity.
Fats rested his head against the stone side of the Cubby Hole and blew smoke rings at the ceiling. He was thinking about what he wanted to tell Andrew. He had been mentally rehearsing the way he would start, all through the funeral service, while his father gulped and sobbed into his handkerchief. Fats was so excited by the prospect of telling, that he was having difficulty containing himself; but he was determined not to blurt it out. The telling of it was, to Fats, of almost equal importance to the doing of it. He did not want Andrew to think that he had hurried here to say it.
‘You know how Fairbrother was on the Parish Council?’ said Andrew.
‘Yeah,’ said Fats, glad that Andrew had initiated a space-filler conversation.
‘Si-Pie’s saying he’s going to stand for his seat.’
‘Si-Pie is?’
Fats frowned at Andrew.
‘What the fuck’s got into him?’
‘He reckons Fairbrother was getting backhanders from some contractor.’ Andrew had heard Simon discussing it with Ruth in the kitchen that morning. It had explained everything. ‘He wants a bit of the action.’
‘That wasn’t Barry Fairbrother,’ said Fats, laughing as he flicked ash onto the cave floor. ‘And that wasn’t the Parish Council. That was What’s-his-name Frierly, up in Yarvil. He was on the school board at Winterdown. Cubby had a fucking fit. Local press calling him for a comment and all that. Frierly got done for it. Doesn’t Si-Pie read the Yarvil and District Gazette?’
Andrew stared at Fats.
‘Fucking typical.’
He ground out his cigarette on the earthy floor, embarrassed by his father’s idiocy. Simon had got the wrong end of the stick yet again. He spurned the local community, sneered at their concerns, was proud of his isolation in his poxy little house on the hill; then he got a bit of misinformation and decided to expose his family to humiliation on the basis of it.
‘Crooked as fuck, Si-Pie, isn’t he?’ said Fats.
They called him Si-Pie because that was Ruth’s nickname for her husband. Fats had heard her use it once, when he had been over for his tea, and had never called Simon anything else since.
‘Yeah, he is,’ said Andrew, wondering whether he would be able to dissuade his father from standing by telling him he had the wrong man and the wrong council.
‘Bit of a coincidence,’ said Fats, ‘because Cubby’s standing as well.’
Fats exhaled through his nostrils, staring at the crevice wall over Andrew’s head.
‘So will voters go for the cunt,’ he said, ‘or the twat?’
Andrew laughed. There was little he enjoyed more than hearing his father called a cunt by Fats.
‘Now have a shifty at this,’ said Fats, jamming his cigarette between his lips and patting his hips, even though he knew that the envelope was in the inside breast pocket. ‘Here you go,’ he said, pulling it out and opening it to show Andrew the contents: brown peppercorn-sized pods in a powdery mix of shrivelled stalks and leaves.
‘Sensimilla, that is.’
‘What is it?’
‘Tips and shoots of your basic unfertilized marijuana plant,’ said Fats, ‘specially prepared for your smoking pleasure.’
‘What’s the difference between that and the normal stuff?’ asked Andrew, with whom Fats had split several lumps of waxy black cannabis resin in the Cubby Hole.
‘Just a different smoke, isn’t it?’ said Fats, stubbing out his own cigarette. He took a packet of Rizlas from his pocket, drew out three of the fragile papers and gummed them together.
‘Did you get it off Kirby?’ asked Andrew, poking at and sniffing the contents of the envelope.
Everyone knew Skye Kirby was the go-to man for drugs. He was a year above them, in the lower sixth. His grandfather was an old hippy, who had been up in court several times for growing his own.
‘Yeah. Mind, there’s a bloke called Obbo,’ said Fats, slitting cigarettes and emptying the tobacco onto the papers, ‘in the Fields, who’ll get you anything. Fucking smack, if you want it.’
‘You don’t want smack, though,’ said Andrew, watching Fats’ face.
‘Nah,’ said Fats, taking the envelope back, and sprinkling the sensimilla onto the tobacco. He rolled the joint together, licking the end of the papers to seal it, poking the roach in more neatly, twisting the end into a point.
‘Nice,’ he said happily.
He had planned to tell Andrew his news after introducing the sensimilla as a kind of warm-up act. He held out his hand for Andrew’s lighter, inserted the cardboarded end between his own lips and lit up, taking a deep, contemplative drag, blowing out the smoke in a long blue jet, then repeating the process.
‘Mmm,’ he said, holding the smoke in his lungs, and imitating Cubby, whom Tessa had given a wine course one Christmas. ‘Herby. A strong aftertaste. Overtones of … fuck …’
He experienced a massive headrush, even though he was sitting, and exhaled, laughing.
‘… try that.’
Andrew leaned across and took the joint, giggling in anticipation, and at the beatific smile on Fats’ face, which was quite at odds with his usual constipated scowl.
Andrew inhaled and felt the power of the drug radiate out from his lungs, unwinding and loosening him. Another drag, and he thought that it was like having your mind shaken out like a duvet, so that it resettled without creases, so that everything became smooth and simple and easy and good.
‘Nice,’ he echoed Fats, smiling at the sound of his own voice. He passed the joint back into Fat’s waiting fingers and savoured this sense of well-being.
‘So, you wanna hear something interesting?’ said Fats, grinning uncontrollably.
‘Go on.’
‘I fucked her last night.’
Andrew nearly said ‘who?’, before his befuddled brain remembered: Krystal Weedon, of course; Krystal Weedon, who else?
‘Where?’ he asked, stupidly. It was not what he wanted to know.
Fats stretched out on his back in his funeral suit, his feet towards the river. Wordlessly, Andrew stretched out beside him, in the opposite direction. They had slept like this, ‘top and tail’, when they had stayed overnight at each other’s houses as children. Andrew gazed up at the rocky ceiling, where the blue smoke hung, slowly furling, and waited to hear everything.
‘I told Cubby and Tess I was at yours, so you know,’ said Fats. He passed the joint into Andrew’s reaching fingers, then linked his long hands on his chest, and listened to himself telling. ‘Then I got the bus to the Fields. Met her outside Oddbins.’
‘By Tesco’s?’ asked Andrew. He did not know why he kept asking dumb questions.
‘Yeah,’ said Fats. ‘We went to the rec. There’s trees in the corner behind the public bogs. Nice and private. It was getting dark.’
Fats shifted position and Andrew handed back the joint.
‘Getting in’s harder than I thought it would be,’ said Fats, and Andrew was mesmerized, half inclined to laugh, afraid of missing every unvarnished detail Fats could give him. ‘She was wetter when I was fingering her.’
A giggle rose like trapped gas in Andrew’s chest, but was stifled there.
‘Lot of pushing to get in properly. It’s tighter than I thought.’
Andrew saw a jet of smoke rise from the place where Fats’ head must be.
‘I came in about ten seconds. It feels fucking great once you’re in.’
Andrew fought back laughter, in case there was more.
‘I wore a johnny. It’d be better without.’
He pushed the joint back into Andrew’s hand. Andrew pulled on it, thinking. Harder to get in than you thought; over in ten seconds. It didn’t sound much; yet what wouldn’t he give? He imagined Gaia Bawden flat on her back for him and, without meaning to, let out a small groan, which Fats did not seem to hear. Lost in a fug of erotic images, pulling on the joint, Andrew lay with his erection on the patch of earth his body was warming and listened to the soft rush of the water a few feet from his head.
‘What matters, Arf?’ asked Fats, after a long, dreamy pause.
His head swimming pleasantly, Andrew answered, ‘Sex.’
‘Yeah,’ said Fats, delighted. ‘Fucking. That’s what matters. Propogun … propogating the species. Throw away the johnnies. Multiply.’
‘Yeah,’ said Andrew, laughing.
‘And death,’ said Fats. He had been taken aback by the reality of that coffin, and how little material lay between all the watching vultures and an actual corpse. He was not sorry that he had left before it disappeared into the ground. ‘Gotta be, hasn’t it? Death.’
‘Yeah,’ said Andrew, thinking of war and car crashes, and dying in blazes of speed and glory.
‘Yeah,’ said Fats. ‘Fucking and dying. That’s it, innit? Fucking and dying. That’s life.’
‘Trying to get a fuck and trying not to die.’
‘Or trying to die,’ said Fats. ‘Some people. Risking it.’
‘Yeah. Risking it.’
There was more silence, and their hiding place was cool and hazy.
‘And music,’ said Andrew quietly, watching the blue smoke hanging beneath the dark rock.
‘Yeah,’ said Fats, in the distance. ‘And music.’
The river rushed on past the Cubby Hole.
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