Things denied, things untold, things hidden and disguised.
The muddy River Orr gushed over the wreckage of the stolen computer, thrown from the old stone bridge at midnight. Simon limped to work on his fractured toe and told everyone that he had slipped on the garden path. Ruth pressed ice to her bruises and concealed them inexpertly with an old tube of foundation; Andrew’s lip scabbed over, like Dane Tully’s, and Paul had another nosebleed on the bus and had to go straight to the nurse on arrival at school.
Shirley Mollison, who had been shopping in Yarvil, did not answer Ruth’s repeated telephone calls until late afternoon, by which time Ruth’s sons had arrived home from school. Andrew listened to the one-sided conversation from the stairs outside the sitting room. He knew that Ruth was trying to take care of the problem before Simon came home, because Simon was more than capable of seizing the receiver from her and shouting and swearing at her friend.
‘… just silly lies,’ she was saying brightly, ‘but we’d be very grateful if you could remove it, Shirley.’
He scowled and the cut on his fat lip threatened to burst open again. He hated hearing his mother asking the woman for a favour. In that moment he was irrationally annoyed that the post had not been taken down already; then he remembered that he had written it, that he had caused everything: his mother’s battered face, his own cut lip and the atmosphere of dread that pervaded the house at the prospect of Simon’s return.
‘I do understand you’ve got a lot of things on …’ Ruth was saying cravenly, ‘but you can see how this might do Simon damage, if people believe …’
‘Yes.’ Ruth sounded tired. ‘She’s going to take those things about Dad off the site so, hopefully, that’ll be the end of it.’
Andrew knew his mother to be intelligent, and much handier around the house than his ham-fisted father. She was capable of earning her own living.
‘Why didn’t she take the post down straight away, if you’re friends?’ he asked, following her into the kitchen. For the first time in his life, his pity for Ruth was mingled with a feeling of frustration that amounted to anger.
‘She’s been busy,’ snapped Ruth.
One of her eyes was bloodshot from Simon’s punch.
‘Did you tell her she could be in trouble for leaving defamatory stuff on there, if she moderates the boards? We did that stuff in comput – ‘
‘I’ve told you, she’s taking it down, Andrew,’ said Ruth angrily.
She was not frightened of showing temper to her sons. Was it because they did not hit her, or for some other reason? Andrew knew that her face must ache as badly as his own.
‘So who d’you reckon wrote that stuff about Dad?’ he asked her recklessly.
She turned a face of fury upon him.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘but whoever they are, it was a despicable, cowardly thing to do. Everyone’s got something they’d like to hide. How would it be if Dad put some of the things he knows about other people on the internet? But he wouldn’t do it.’
‘That’d be against his moral code, would it?’ said Andrew.
‘You don’t know your father as well as you think you do!’ shouted Ruth with tears in her eyes. ‘Get out – go and do your homework – I don’t care – just get out!’
Yet the deletion of the post could not remove it from the consciousness of those who were passionately interested in the forthcoming contest for Barry’s seat. Parminder Jawanda had copied the message about Simon Price onto her computer, and kept opening it, subjecting each sentence to the scrutiny of a forensic scientist examining fibres on a corpse, searching for traces of Howard Mollison’s literary DNA. He would have done all he could to disguise his distinctive phraseology, but she was sure that she recognized his pomposity in ‘Mr Price is certainly no stranger to keeping down costs’, and in ‘the benefit of his many useful contacts’.
‘Minda, you don’t know Simon Price,’ said Tessa Wall. She and Colin were having supper with the Jawandas in the Old Vicarage kitchen, and Parminder had started on the subject of the post almost the moment they had crossed the threshold. ‘He’s a very unpleasant man and he could have upset any number of people. I honestly don’t think it’s Howard Mollison. I can’t see him doing anything so obvious.’
‘Don’t kid yourself, Tessa,’ said Parminder. ‘Howard will do anything to make sure Miles is elected. You watch. He’ll go for Colin next.’
Tessa saw Colin’s knuckles whiten on his fork handle, and wished that Parminder would think before she spoke. She, of anyone, knew what Colin was like; she prescribed his Prozac.
Vikram was sitting at the end of the table in silence. His beautiful face fell naturally into a slightly sardonic smile. Tessa had always been intimidated by the surgeon, as she was by all very good-looking men. Although Parminder was one of Tessa’s best friends, she barely knew Vikram, who worked long hours and involved himself much less in Pagford matters than his wife.
‘I told you about the agenda, didn’t I?’ Parminder rattled on. ‘For the next meeting? He’s proposing a motion on the Fields, for us to pass to the Yarvil committee doing the boundary review, and a resolution on forcing the drug clinic out of their building. He’s trying to rush it all through, while Barry’s seat’s empty.’
She kept leaving the table to fetch things, opening more cupboard doors than was necessary, distracted and unfocused. Twice she forgot why she had got up, and sat down again, empty-handed. Vikram watched her, everywhere she moved, from beneath his thick eyelashes.
‘I rang Howard last night,’ Parminder said, ‘and I told him we ought to wait until we’re back up to the full complement of councillors before we vote on such big issues. He laughed; he says we can’t wait. Yarvil wants to hear our views, he said, with the boundary review coming up. What he’s really scared of is that Colin’s going to win Barry’s seat, because it won’t be so easy to foist it all on us then. I’ve emailed everyone I think will vote with us, to see if they can’t put pressure on him to delay the votes, for one meeting …
‘”The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother”,’ Parminder added breathlessly. ‘The bastard. He’s not using Barry’s death to beat him. Not if I can help it.’
Tessa thought she saw Vikram’s lips twitch. Old Pagford, led by Howard Mollison, generally forgave Vikram the crimes that it could not forget in his wife: brownness, cleverness and affluence (all of which, to Shirley Mollison’s nostrils, had the whiff of a gloat). It was, Tessa thought, grossly unfair: Parminder worked hard at every aspect of her Pagford life: school f??tes and sponsored bakes, the local surgery and the Parish Council, and her reward was implacable dislike from the Pagford old guard; Vikram, who rarely joined or participated in anything, was fawned upon, flattered and spoken of with proprietary approval.
‘Mollison’s a megalomaniac,’ Parminder said, pushing food nervously around her plate. ‘A bully and a megalomaniac.’
Vikram laid down his knife and fork and sat back in his chair.
‘So why,’ he asked, ‘is he happy being chair of the Parish Council? Why hasn’t he tried to get on the District Council?’
‘Because he thinks that Pagford is the epicentre of the universe,’ snapped Parminder. ‘You don’t understand: he wouldn’t swap being chair of Pagford Parish Council for being Prime Minister. Anyway, he doesn’t need to be on the council in Yarvil; he’s already got Aubrey Fawley there, pushing through the big agenda. All revved up for the boundary review. They’re working together.’
Parminder felt Barry’s absence like a ghost at the table. He would have explained it all to Vikram and made him laugh in the process; Barry had been a superb mimic of Howard’s speech patterns, of his rolling, waddling walk, of his sudden gastrointestinal interruptions.
‘I keep telling her, she’s letting herself get too stressed,’ Vikram told Tessa, who was appalled to find herself blushing slightly, with his dark eyes upon her. ‘You know about this stupid complaint – the old woman with emphysema?’
‘Yes, Tessa knows. Everyone knows. Do we have to discuss it at the dinner table?’ snapped Parminder, and she jumped to her feet and began clearing the plates.
Tessa tried to help, but Parminder told her crossly to stay where she was. Vikram gave Tessa a small smile of solidarity that made her stomach flutter. She could not help remembering, as Parminder clattered around the table, that Vikram and Parminder had had an arranged marriage.
(‘It’s only an introduction through the family,’ Parminder had told her, in the early days of their friendship, defensive and annoyed at something she had seen in Tessa’s face. ‘Nobody makes you marry, you know.’
But she had spoken, at other times, of the immense pressure from her mother to take a husband.
‘All Sikh parents want their kids married. It’s an obsession,’ Parminder said bitterly.)
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