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Relief of Poverty …
13.5 Gifts to benefit the poor … are charitable, and a gift for the poor is charitable even if it happens incidentally to benefit the rich …
Charles Arnold-Baker
Local Council Administration,
Seventh Edition
Nearly three weeks after the sirens had wailed through sleepy Pagford, on a sunny morning in April, Shirley Mollison stood alone in her bedroom, squinting at her reflection in the mirrored wardrobe. She was making final adjustments to her dress before her now-daily drive to South West General. The belt buckle slid up a hole tighter than it had done a fortnight ago, her silver hair was in need of a trim and her grimace against the sunshine blazing into the room could have been a simple expression of her mood.
When Miles accompanied her to the hospital, she could let him do all the talking to Howard, which he did, keeping up a steady monologue of Pagford news. She felt so much better – both more visible and more protected – with tall Miles walking beside her down the chilly corridors. He chatted genially to the nurses, and handed her in and out of the car, and restored to her the sense of being a rare creature, worthy of care and protection. But Miles could not come every day, and to Shirley’s profound irritation he kept deputizing Samantha to accompany her. This was not the same thing at all, even though Samantha was one of the few who managed to bring a smile to Howard’s purple vacant face.
Nobody seemed to realize how dreadful the silence was at home either. When the doctors had told the family that recuperation would take months, Shirley had hoped that Miles would ask her to move into the spare room of the big house in Church Row, or that he might stay over, from time to time, in the bungalow. But no: she had been left alone, quite alone, except for a painful three-day period when she had played hostess to Pat and Melly.
I’d never have done it, she reassured herself, automatically, in the silent night, when she could not sleep. I never really meant to. I was just upset. I’d never have done it.
She had buried Andrew’s EpiPen in the soft earth beneath the bird table in the garden, like a tiny corpse. She did not like knowing it was there. Some dark evening soon, the night before refuse-collection day, she would dig it up again and slip it into a neighbour’s bin.
Howard had not mentioned the needle to her or to anyone. He had not asked her why she had run away when she saw him.
Shirley found relief in long rattling streams of invective, directed at the people who had, in her stated opinion, caused the catastrophe that had fallen on her family. Parminder Jawanda was the first of these, naturally, for her callous refusal to attend Howard. Then there were the two teenagers who, through their vile irresponsibility, had diverted the ambulance that might have reached Howard sooner.
The latter argument was perhaps a little weak, but it was the enjoyable fashion to denigrate Stuart Wall and Krystal Weedon, and Shirley found plenty of willing listeners in her immediate circle. What was more, it had transpired that the Wall boy had been the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother all along. He had confessed to his parents, and they had personally telephoned the victims of the boy’s spite to apologize. The Ghost’s identity had leaked swiftly into the wider community, and this, coupled with the knowledge that he had been jointly responsible for the drowning of a three-year-old child, made abuse of Stuart both a duty and a pleasure.
Shirley was more vehement in her comments than anybody. There was a savagery in her denunciations, each of them a little exorcism of the kinship and admiration she had felt for the Ghost, and a repudiation of that awful last post which nobody else, as yet, had admitted to seeing. The Walls had not telephoned Shirley to apologize, but she was constantly primed, in case the boy should mention it to his parents, or in case anybody should bring it up, to deliver a final crushing blow to Stuart’s reputation.
‘Oh yes, Howard and I know all about it,’ she planned to say, with icy dignity, ‘and it’s my belief that the shock caused his heart attack.’
She had actually practised saying this aloud in the kitchen.
The question of whether Stuart Wall had really known something about her husband and Maureen was less urgent now, because Howard was patently incapable of shaming her in that way again, and perhaps never would be, and nobody seemed to be gossiping. And if the silence she offered Howard, when she was unavoidably alone with him, was tinged with a sense of grievance on both sides, she was able to face the prospect of his protracted incapacitation and absence from the house with more equanimity than she might have thought possible three weeks previously.
The doorbell rang and Shirley hurried to open it. Maureen was there, hobbling on ill-advised high heels, garish in bright aquamarine.
‘Hello, dear, come in,’ said Shirley. ‘I’ll get my bag.’
‘They’re saying people got up a collection,’ said Maureen, brimful of gossip that Shirley had somehow missed, in her endless back and forward trips to the hospital. ‘Don’t ask me who. Anyway, I wouldn’t have thought the family would want it right by the river, would you?’
(The dirty and foul-mouthed little boy, of whose existence few had been aware, and of whom nobody but his mother and sister had been especially fond, had undergone such a transformation in Pagford’s collective mind by his drowning, that he was spoken of everywhere as a water baby, a cherub, a pure and gentle angel whom all would have embraced with love and compassion, if only they could have saved him.
But the needle and the flame had had no transformative effect upon Krystal’s reputation; on the contrary, they had fixed her permanently in the mind of Old Pagford as a soulless creature whose pursuit of what the elderly liked to call kicks had led to the death of an innocent child.)
Shirley was pulling on her coat.
‘You realize, I actually saw them that day?’ she said, her cheeks turning pink. ‘The boy bawling by one clump of bushes, and Krystal Weedon and Stuart Wall in another—’
‘Did you? And were they really …?’ asked Maureen avidly.
‘Oh yes,’ said Shirley. ‘Broad daylight. Open air. And the boy was right by the river when I saw him. A couple of steps and he’d have been in.’
Something in Maureen’s expression stung her.
‘I was hurrying,’ said Shirley with asperity, ‘because Howard had said he was feeling poorly and I was worried sick. I didn’t want to go out at all, but Miles and Samantha had sent Lexie over – I think, if you want my honest opinion, they’d had a row – and then Lexie wanted to visit the café – I was absolutely distracted, and all I could think was, I must get back to Howard … I didn’t actually realize what I’d seen until much later … and the dreadful thing,’ said Shirley, her colour higher than ever, and returning again to her favourite refrain, ‘is that if Krystal Weedon hadn’t let that child wander off while she was having her fun in the bushes, the ambulance would have reached Howard so much more quickly. Because, you know, with two of them coming … things got confu—’
‘That’s right,’ said Maureen, interrupting as they moved out towards the car, because she had heard all this before. ‘You know, I can’t think why they’re having the service here in Pagford …’
She longed to suggest that they drive past the church on the way to the hospital – she had a craving to see what the Weedon family looked like en masse, and to glimpse, perhaps, that degenerate junkie mother – but could think of no way to frame the request.
‘You know, there’s one comfort, Shirley,’ she said, as they set off for the bypass. ‘The Fields are as good as gone. That must be a comfort to Howard. Even if he can’t attend council for a while, he got that done.’
Andrew Price was speeding down the steep hill from Hilltop House, with the sun hot on his back and the wind in his hair. His week-old shiner had turned yellow and green, and looked, if possible, even worse than it had when he had turned up at school with his eye almost closed. Andrew had told the teachers who enquired that he had fallen off his bike.
It was now the Easter holidays, and Gaia had texted Andrew the previous evening to ask whether he would be going to Krystal’s funeral the next day. He had sent an immediate ‘yes’, and was now dressed, after much deliberation, in his cleanest jeans and a dark grey shirt, because he did not own a suit.
He was not very clear why Gaia was going to the funeral, unless it was to be with Sukhvinder Jawanda, to whom she seemed to cling more fondly than ever, now that she was moving back to London with her mother.
‘Mum says she should never have come to Pagford,’ Gaia had told Andrew and Sukhvinder happily, as the three of them sat on the low wall beside the newsagent’s at lunchtime. ‘She knows Gavin’s a total twat.’
She had given Andrew her mobile number and told him that they would go out together when she came to Reading to see her father, and even mentioned, casually, taking him to see some of her favourite places in London, if he visited. She was showering benefits around her in the manner of a demob-happy soldier, and these promises, made so lightly, gilded the prospect of Andrew’s own move. He had greeted the news that his parents had had an offer on Hilltop House with at least as much excitement as pain.
The sweeping turn into Church Row, usually made with an uplift of spirits, dampened them. He could see people moving around in the graveyard, and he wondered what this funeral was going to be like, and for the first time that morning thought of Krystal Weedon in more than the abstract.
A memory, long buried in the deepest recesses of his mind, came back to him, of that time in the playground at St Thomas’s, when Fats, in a spirit of disinterested investigation, had handed him a peanut hidden inside a marshmallow … he could still feel his burning throat closing inexorably. He remembered trying to yell, and his knees giving way, and the children all around him, watching with a strange, bloodless interest, and then Krystal Weedon’s raucous scream.
‘Andiprice iz ’avin’ a ’lurgycacshun!’
She had run, on her stocky little legs, all the way to the staff room, and the headmaster had snatched Andrew up and sprinted with him to the nearby surgery, where Dr Crawford had administered adrenalin. She was the only one who had remembered the talk that their teacher had given the class, explaining Andrew’s life-threatening condition; the only one to recognize his symptoms.
Krystal ought to have been given a gold merit star, and perhaps a certificate at assembly as Pupil of the Week, but the very next day (Andrew remembered it as clearly as his own collapse) she had hit Lexie Mollison so hard in the mouth that she had knocked out two of Lexie’s teeth.
He wheeled Simon’s bike carefully into the Walls’ garage, then rang the doorbell with a reluctance that had never been there before. Tessa Wall answered, dressed in her best grey coat. Andrew was annoyed with her; it was down to her that he had a black eye.
‘Come in, Andy,’ said Tessa, and her expression was tense. ‘We’ll just be a minute.’
He waited in the hallway, where the coloured glass over the door cast its paintboxy glow on the floorboards. Tessa marched into the kitchen, and Andrew glimpsed Fats in his black suit, crumpled up in a kitchen chair like a crushed spider, with one arm over his head, as if he were fending off blows.
Andrew turned his back. The two boys had had no communication since Andrew had led Tessa to the Cubby Hole. Fats had not been to school for a fortnight. Andrew had sent a couple of texts, but Fats had not replied. His Facebook page remained frozen as it had been on the day of Howard Mollison’s party.
A week ago, without warning, Tessa had telephoned the Prices, told them that Fats had admitted to having posted the messages under the name The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother, and offered her deepest apologies for the consequences they had suffered.
‘So how did he know I had that computer?’ Simon had roared, advancing on Andrew. ‘How did fucking Fats Wall know I did jobs after-hours at the printworks?’
Andrew’s only consolation was that if his father had known the truth, he might have ignored Ruth’s protests and continued to pummel Andrew until he was unconscious.
Why Fats had decided to pretend he had authored all the posts, Andrew did not know. Perhaps it was Fats’ ego at work, his determination to be the mastermind, the most destructive, the baddest of them all. Perhaps he had thought he was doing something noble, taking the fall for both of them. Either way, Fats had caused much more trouble than he knew; he had never realized, thought Andrew, waiting in the hall, what it was like to live with a father like Simon Price, safe in his attic room, with his reasonable, civilized parents.
Andrew could hear the adult Walls talking in quiet voices; they had not closed the kitchen door.
‘We need to leave now,’ Tessa was saying. ‘He’s got a moral obligation and he’s going.’
‘He’s had enough punishment,’ said Cubby’s voice.
‘I’m not asking him to go as a—’
‘Aren’t you?’ said Cubby sharply. ‘For God’s sake, Tessa. D’you think they’ll want him there? You go. Stu can stay here with me.’
A minute later Tessa emerged from the kitchen, closing the door firmly behind her.
‘Stu isn’t coming, Andy,’ she said, and he could tell that she was furious about it. ‘I’m sorry about that.’
‘No problem,’ he muttered. He was glad. He could not imagine what they had left to talk about. This way he could sit with Gaia.
A little way down Church Row, Samantha Mollison was standing at her sitting-room window, holding a coffee and watching mourners pass her house on their way to St Michael and All Saints. When she saw Tessa Wall, and what she thought was Fats, she let out a little gasp.
‘Oh my God, he’s going,’ she said out loud, to nobody.
Then she recognized Andrew, turned red, and backed hastily away from the glass.
Samantha was supposed to be working from home. Her laptop lay open behind her on the sofa, but that morning she had put on an old black dress, half wondering whether she would attend Krystal and Robbie Weedon’s funeral. She supposed that she had only a few more minutes in which to make up her mind.
She had never spoken a kind word about Krystal Weedon, so surely it would be hypocritical to attend her funeral, purely because she had wept over the account of her death in the Yarvil and District Gazette, and because Krystal’s chubby face grinned out of every one of the class photographs that Lexie had brought home from St Thomas’s?
Samantha set down her coffee, hurried to the telephone and rang Miles at work.
‘Hello, babe,’ he said.
(She had held him while he sobbed with relief beside the hospital bed, where Howard lay connected to machines, but alive.)
‘Hi,’ she said. ‘How are you?’
‘Not bad. Busy morning. Lovely to hear from you,’ he said. ‘Are you all right?’
(They had made love the previous night, and she had not pretended that he was anybody else.)
‘The funeral’s about to start,’ said Samantha. ‘People going by …’
She had suppressed what she wanted to say for nearly three weeks, because of Howard, and the hospital, and not wanting to remind Miles of their awful row, but she could not hold it back any longer.
‘… Miles, I saw that boy. Robbie Weedon. I saw him, Miles.’ She was panicky, pleading. ‘He was in the St Thomas’s playing field when I walked across it that morning.’
‘In the playing field?’
In the last three weeks, a desire to be absorbed in something bigger than herself had grown in Samantha. Day by day she had waited for the strange new need to subside (this is how people go religious, she thought, trying to laugh herself out of it) but it had, if anything, intensified.
‘Miles,’ she said, ‘you know the council … with your dad – and Parminder Jawanda resigning too – you’ll want to co-opt a couple of people, won’t you?’ She knew all the terminology; she had listened to it for years. ‘I mean, you won’t want another election, after all this?’
‘Bloody hell, no.’
‘So Colin Wall could fill one seat,’ she rushed on, ‘and I was thinking, I’ve got time – now the business is all online – I could do the other one.’
‘You?’ said Miles, astonished.
‘I’d like to get involved,’ said Samantha.
Krystal Weedon, dead at sixteen, barricaded inside the squalid little house on Foley Road … Samantha had not drunk a glass of wine in two weeks. She thought that she might like to hear the arguments for Bellchapel Addiction Clinic.
The telephone was ringing in number ten Hope Street. Kay and Gaia were already late leaving for Krystal’s funeral. When Gaia asked who was speaking, her lovely face hardened: she seemed much older.
‘It’s Gavin,’ she told her mother.
‘I didn’t call him!’ whispered Kay, like a nervous schoolgirl as she took the phone.
‘Hi,’ said Gavin. ‘How are you?’
‘On my way out to a funeral,’ said Kay, with her eyes locked on her daughter’s. ‘The Weedon children’s. So, not fabulous.’
‘Oh,’ said Gavin. ‘Christ, yeah. Sorry. I didn’t realize.’
He had spotted the familiar surname in a Yarvil and District Gazette headline, and, vaguely interested at last, bought a copy. It had occurred to him that he might have walked close by the place where the teenagers and the boy had been, but he had no actual memory of seeing Robbie Weedon.
Gavin had had an odd couple of weeks. He was missing Barry badly. He did not understand himself: when he should have been mired in misery that Mary had turned him down, all he wanted was a beer with the man whose wife he had hoped to take as his own …
(Muttering aloud as he had walked away from her house, he had said to himself, ‘That’s what you get for trying to steal your best friend’s life,’ and failed to notice the slip of the tongue.)
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I was wondering whether you fancied a drink later?’
Kay almost laughed.
‘Turn you down, did she?’
She handed Gaia the phone to hang up. They hurried out of the house and half jogged to the end of the street and up through the Square. For ten strides, as they passed the Black Canon, Gaia held her mother’s hand.
They arrived as the hearses appeared at the top of the road, and hurried into the graveyard while the pall-bearers were shuffling out onto the pavement.
(‘Get away from the window,’ Colin Wall commanded his son.
But Fats, who had to live henceforth with the knowledge of his own cowardice, moved forward, trying to prove that he could, at least, take this …
The coffins glided past in the big black-windowed cars: the first was bright pink, and the sight robbed him of breath, and the second was tiny and shiny white …
Colin placed himself in front of Fats too late to protect him, but he drew the curtains anyway. In the gloomy, familiar sitting room, where Fats had confessed to his parents that he had exposed his father’s illness to the world; where he had confessed to as much as he could think of, in the hope that they would conclude him to be mad and ill; where he had tried to heap upon himself so much blame that they would beat him or stab him or do to him all those things that he knew he deserved, Colin put a hand gently on his son’s back and steered him away, towards the sunlit kitchen.)
Outside St Michael and All Saints, the pall-bearers were readying themselves to take the coffins up the church path. Dane Tully was among them, with his earring and a self-inked tattoo of a spider’s web on his neck, in a heavy black overcoat.
The Jawandas waited with the Bawdens in the shade of the yew tree. Andrew Price hovered near them, and Tessa Wall stood at some distance, pale and stony-faced. The other mourners formed a separate phalanx around the church doors. Some had a pinched and defiant air; others looked resigned and defeated; a few wore cheap black clothes, but most were in jeans or tracksuits, and one girl was sporting a cut-off T-shirt and a belly-ring that caught the sun when she moved. The coffins moved up the path, gleaming in the bright light.
It was Sukhvinder Jawanda who had chosen the bright pink coffin for Krystal, as she was sure she would have wanted. It was Sukhvinder who had done nearly everything; organizing, choosing and persuading. Parminder kept looking sideways at her daughter, and finding excuses to touch her: brushing her hair out of her eyes, smoothing her collar.
Just as Robbie had come out of the river purified and regretted by Pagford, so Sukhvinder Jawanda, who had risked her life to try and save the boy, had emerged a heroine. From the article about her in the Yarvil and District Gazette to Maureen Lowe’s loud proclamations that she was recommending the girl for a special police award to the speech her headmistress made about her from the lectern in assembly, Sukhvinder knew, for the first time, what it was to eclipse her brother and sister.
She had hated every minute of it. At night, she felt again the dead boy’s weight in her arms, dragging her towards the deep; she remembered the temptation to let go and save herself, and asked herself how long she would have resisted it. The deep scar on her leg itched and ached, whether moving or stationary. The news of Krystal Weedon’s death had had such an alarming effect on her that her parents had arranged a counsellor, but she had not cut herself once since being pulled from the river; her near drowning seemed to have purged her of the need.
Then, on her first day back at school, with Fats Wall still absent, and admiring stares following her down the corridors, she had heard the rumour that Terri Weedon had no money to bury her children; that there would be no stone marker, and the cheapest coffins.
‘That’s very sad, Jolly,’ her mother had said that evening, as the family sat eating dinner together under the wall of family photographs. Her tone was as gentle as the policewoman’s had been; there was no snap in Parminder’s voice any more when she spoke to her daughter.
‘I want to try and get people to give money,’ said Sukhvinder.
Parminder and Vikram glanced at each other across the kitchen table. Both were instinctively opposed to the idea of asking people in Pagford to donate to such a cause, but neither of them said so. They were a little afraid, now that they had seen her forearms, of upsetting Sukhvinder, and the shadow of the as-yet-unknown counsellor seemed to be hovering over all their interactions.
‘And,’ Sukhvinder went on, with a feverish energy like Parminder’s own, ‘I think the funeral service should be here, at St Michael’s. Like Mr Fairbrother’s. Krys used to go to all the services here when we were at St Thomas’s. I bet she was never in another church in her life.’
The light of God shines from every soul, thought Parminder, and to Vikram’s surprise she said abruptly, ‘Yes, all right. We’ll have to see what we can do.’
The bulk of the expense had been met by the Jawandas and the Walls, but Kay Bawden, Samantha Mollison and a couple of the mothers of girls on the rowing team had donated money too. Sukhvinder then insisted on going into the Fields in person, to explain to Terri what they had done, and why; all about the rowing team, and why Krystal and Robbie should have a service at St Michael’s.
Parminder had been exceptionally worried about Sukhvinder going into the Fields, let alone that filthy house, by herself, but Sukhvinder had known that it would be all right. The Weedons and the Tullys knew that she had tried to save Robbie’s life. Dane Tully had stopped grunting at her in English, and had stopped his mates from doing it too.
Terri agreed to everything that Sukhvinder suggested. She was emaciated, dirty, monosyllabic and entirely passive. Sukhvinder had been frightened of her, with her pockmarked arms and her missing teeth; it was like talking to a corpse.
Inside the church, the mourners divided cleanly, with the people from the Fields taking the left-hand pews, and those from Pagford, the right. Shane and Cheryl Tully marched Terri along between them to the front row; Terri, in a coat two sizes too large, seemed scarcely aware of where she was.
The coffins lay side by side on biers at the front of the church. A bronze chrysanthemum oar lay on Krystal’s, and a white chrysanthemum teddy bear on Robbie’s.
Kay Bawden remembered Robbie’s bedroom, with its few grimy plastic toys, and her fingers trembled on the order of service. Naturally, there was to be an inquiry at work, because the local paper was clamouring for one, and had written a front-page piece suggesting that the small boy had been left in the care of a pair of junkies and that his death could have been avoided, if only he had been removed to safety by negligent social workers. Mattie had been signed off with stress again, and Kay’s handling of the case review was being assessed. Kay wondered what effect it would have on her chances of getting another job in London, when every local authority was cutting numbers of social workers, and how Gaia would react if they had to stay in Pagford … she had not dared discuss it with her yet.
Andrew glanced sideways at Gaia and they exchanged small smiles. Up in Hilltop House, Ruth was already sorting things for the move. Andrew could tell that his mother hoped, in her perennially optimistic way, that by sacrificing their house and the beauty of the hills, they would be rewarded with a rebirth. Wedded for ever to an idea of Simon that took no account of his rages or his crookedness, she was hoping that these would be left behind, like boxes forgotten in the move … But at least, Andrew thought, he would be one step nearer London when they went, and he had Gaia’s assurance that she had been too drunk to know what she was doing with Fats, and perhaps she might invite him and Sukhvinder back to her house for coffee after the funeral was over …
Gaia, who had never been inside St Michael’s before, was half listening to the vicar’s sing-song delivery, letting her eyes travel over the high starry ceiling and the jewel-coloured windows. There was a prettiness about Pagford that, now she knew that she was leaving, she thought she might quite miss …
Tessa Wall had chosen to sit behind everyone else, on her own. This brought her directly under the calm gaze of St Michael, whose foot rested eternally on that writhing devil with its horns and tail. Tessa had been in tears ever since her first glimpse of the two glossy coffins and, as much as she tried to stifle them, her soft gurglings were still audible to those near her. She had half expected somebody on the Weedon side of the church to recognize her as Fats’ mother and attack her, but nothing had happened.
(Her family life had turned inside out. Colin was furious with her.
‘You told him what?’
‘He wanted a taste of real life,’ she had sobbed, ‘he wanted to see the seamy underside – don’t you understand what all that slumming it was about?’
‘So you told him that he might be the result of incest, and that I tried to kill myself because he came into the family?’
Years of trying to reconcile them, and it had taken a dead child, and Colin’s profound understanding of guilt, to do it. She had heard the two of them talking in Fats’ attic room the previous evening, and paused to eavesdrop at the foot of the stairs.
‘… you can put that – that thing that Mum suggested out of your head completely,’ Colin was saying gruffly. ‘You’ve got no physical or mental abnormalities, have you? Well then … don’t worry about it any more. But your counsellor will help you with all of this …’)
Tessa gurgled and snorted into her sodden tissue, and thought how little she had done for Krystal, dead on the bathroom floor … it would have been a relief if St Michael had stepped down from his glowing window and enacted judgement on them all, decreeing exactly how much fault was hers, for the deaths, for the broken lives, for the mess … A fidgeting young Tully boy on the other side of the aisle hopped out of his pew, and a tattooed woman reached out a powerful arm, grabbed him and pulled him back. Tessa’s sobs were punctuated by a little gasp of surprise. She was sure that she had recognized her own lost watch on the thick wrist.
Sukhvinder, who was listening to Tessa’s sobs, felt sorry for her, but did not dare turn around. Parminder was furious with Tessa. There had been no way for Sukhvinder to explain the scars on her arms without mentioning Fats Wall. She had begged her mother not to call the Walls, but then Tessa had telephoned Parminder to tell them that Fats had taken full responsibility for The_Ghost_of_ Barry_Fairbrother’s posts on the council website, and Parminder had been so vitriolic on the telephone that they had not spoken since.
It had been such a strange thing for Fats to do, to take the blame for her post too; Sukhvinder thought of it almost as an apology. He had always seemed to read her mind: did he know that she had attacked her own mother? Sukhvinder wondered whether she would be able to confess the truth to this new counsellor in whom her parents seemed to place so much faith, and whether she would ever be able to tell the newly kind and contrite Parminder …
She was trying to follow the service, but it was not helping her in the way that she had hoped. She was glad about the chrysanthemum oar and the teddy bear, which Lauren’s mum had made; she was glad that Gaia and Andy had come, and the girls from the rowing team, but she wished that the Fairbrother twins had not refused.
(‘It’d upset Mum,’ Siobhan had told Sukhvinder. ‘See, she thinks Dad spent too much time on Krystal.’
‘Oh,’ said Sukhvinder, taken aback.
‘And,’ said Niamh, ‘Mum doesn’t like the idea that she’ll have to see Krystal’s grave every time we visit Dad’s. They’ll probably be really near each other.’
Sukhvinder thought these objections small and mean, but it seemed sacrilegious to apply such terms to Mrs Fairbrother. The twins walked away, wrapped up in each other as they always were these days, and treating Sukhvinder with coolness for her defection to the outsider, Gaia Bawden.)
Sukhvinder kept waiting for somebody to stand up and talk about who Krystal really was, and what she had done in her life, the way that Niamh and Siobhan’s uncle had done for Mr Fairbrother, but apart from the vicar’s brief reference to ‘tragically short lives’ and ‘local family with deep roots in Pagford’, he seemed determined to skirt the facts.
So Sukhvinder focused her thoughts on the day that their crew had competed in the regional finals. Mr Fairbrother had driven them in the minibus to face the girls from St Anne’s. The canal ran right through the private school’s grounds, and it had been decided that they were to change in the St Anne’s sports hall, and start the race there.
‘Unsporting, course it is,’ Mr Fairbrother had told them on the way. ‘Home-ground advantage. I tried to get it changed, but they wouldn’t. Just don’t be intimidated, all right?’
‘I ain’ fuck—’
‘I ain’ scared.’
But when they turned into the grounds, Sukhvinder was scared. Long stretches of soft green lawn, and a big symmetrical golden-stoned building with spires and a hundred windows: she had never seen anything like it, except on picture postcards.
‘It’s like Buckingham Palace!’ Lauren shrieked from the back, and Krystal’s mouth had formed a round O; she had been as unaffected as a child sometimes.
All of their parents, and Krystal’s great-grandmother, were waiting at the finishing line, wherever that was. Sukhvinder was sure that she was not the only one who felt small, scared and inferior as they approached the entrance of the beautiful building.
A woman in academic dress came swooping out to greet Mr Fairbrother, in his tracksuit.
‘You must be Winterdown!’
‘Course ’e’s not, does ’e look like a fuckin’ buildin’?’ said Krystal loudly.
They were sure that the teacher from St Anne’s had heard, and Mr Fairbrother turned and tried to scowl at Krystal, but they could tell that he thought it was funny, really. The whole team started to giggle, and they were still snorting and cackling when Mr Fairbrother saw them off at the entrance to the changing rooms.
‘Stretch!’ he shouted after them.
The team from St Anne’s was inside with their own coach. The two sets of girls eyed each other across the benches. Sukhvinder was struck by the other team’s hair. All of them wore it long, natural and shiny: they could have starred in shampoo adverts. On their own team, Siobhan and Niamh had bobs, Lauren’s hair was short; Krystal always wore hers in a tight, high pony tail, and Sukhvinder’s was rough, thick and unruly as a horse’s mane.
She thought she saw two of the St Anne’s girls exchange whispers and smirks, and was sure of it when Krystal suddenly stood tall, glaring at them, and said, ‘S’pose your shit smells of roses, does it?’
‘I beg your pardon?’ said their coach.
‘Jus’ askin’,’ said Krystal sweetly, turning her back to pull off her tracksuit bottoms.
The urge to giggle had been too powerful to resist; the Winterdown team snorted with laughter as they changed. Krystal clowned away, and as the St Anne’s crew filed out she mooned them.
‘Charming,’ said the last girl to leave.
‘Thanks a lot,’ Krystal called after her. ‘I’ll let yer ’ave another look later, if yeh want. I know yeh’re all lezzers,’ she yelled, ‘stuck in ’ere together with no boys!’
Holly had laughed so much that she had doubled over and banged her head on the locker door.
‘Fuckin’ watch it, Hol,’ Krystal had said, delighted with the effect she was having on them all. ‘Yeh’ll need yer ’ead.’
As they had trooped down to the canal, Sukhvinder could see why Mr Fairbrother had wanted the venue changed. There was nobody but him here to support them at the start, whereas the St Anne’s crew had lots of friends shrieking and applauding and jumping up and down on the spot, all with the same kind of glossy long hair.
‘Look!’ shouted Krystal, pointing into this group as they passed. ‘It’s Lexie Mollison! Remember when I knocked yer teeth out, Lex?’
Sukhvinder had a pain from laughing. She was glad and proud to be walking along behind Krystal, and she could tell that the others were too. Something about how Krystal faced the world was protecting them from the effect of the staring eyes and the fluttering bunting, and the building like a palace in the background.
But she could tell that even Krystal was feeling the pressure as they climbed into their boat. Krystal turned to Sukhvinder, who always sat behind her. She was holding something in her hand.
‘Good-luck charm,’ she said, showing her.
It was a red plastic heart on a key-ring, with a picture of her little brother in it.
‘I’ve told ’im I’m gonna bring ’im back a medal,’ said Krystal.
‘Yeah,’ said Sukhvinder, with a rush of faith and fear. ‘We will.’
‘Yeah,’ said Krystal, facing front again, and tucking the key-ring back inside her bra. ‘No competition, this lot,’ she said loudly, so the whole crew could hear. ‘Bunch o’ muff munchers. Le’s do ’em!’
Sukhvinder remembered the starting gun and the crowd’s cheers and her muscles screaming. She remembered her elation at their perfect rhythm, and the pleasure of their deadly seriousness after laughter. Krystal had won it for them. Krystal had taken away the home-ground advantage. Sukhvinder wished that she could be like Krystal: funny and tough; impossible to intimidate; always coming out fighting.
She had asked Terri Weedon for two things, and they had been granted, because Terri agreed with everyone, always. The medal that Krystal had won that day was around her neck for her burial. The other request came, at the very end of the service, and this time, as he announced it, the vicar sounded resigned.
Good girl gone bad –
Take three –
No clouds in my storms …
Let it rain, I hydroplane into fame
Comin’ down with the Dow Jones …
Her family half carried Terri Weedon back down the royal-blue carpet, and the congregation averted its eyes.

The Casual Vacancy • Непредвиденная вакансия
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