Two mornings after her husband’s death, Mary Fairbrother woke at five o’clock. She had slept in the marital bed with her twelve-year-old, Declan, who had crawled in, sobbing, shortly after midnight. He was sound asleep now, so Mary crept out of the room and went down into the kitchen to cry more freely. Every hour that passed added to her grief, because it bore her further away from the living man, and because it was a tiny foretaste of the eternity she would have to spend without him. Again and again she found herself forgetting, for the space of a heartbeat, that he was gone for ever and that she could not turn to him for comfort.
When her sister and brother-in-law came through to make breakfast, Mary took Barry’s phone and withdrew into the study, where she started looking for the numbers of some of Barry’s huge acquaintance. She had only been at it a matter of minutes when the mobile in her hands rang.
‘Yes?’ she murmured.
‘Oh, hello! I’m looking for Barry Fairbrother. Alison Jenkins from the Yarvil and District Gazette.’
The young woman’s jaunty voice was as loud and horrible in Mary’s ear as a triumphal fanfare; the blast of it obliterated the sense of the words.
‘Alison Jenkins from the Yarvil and District Gazette. I want to speak to Barry Fairbrother? It’s about his article on the Fields.’
‘Oh?’ said Mary.
‘Yes, he hasn’t attached details of this girl he talks about. We’re supposed to interview her. Krystal Weedon?’
Each word felt to Mary like a slap. Perversely, she sat still and silent in Barry’s old swivel chair and let the blows rain upon her.
‘Can you hear me?’
‘Yes,’ said Mary, her voice cracking. ‘I can hear you.’
‘I know Mr Fairbrother was very keen to be present when we interview Krystal, but time’s running – ‘
‘He won’t be able to be present,’ said Mary, her voice eliding into a screech. ‘He won’t be able to talk about the bloody Fields any more, or about anything, ever again!’
‘What?’ said the girl on the end of the line.
‘My husband is dead, all right. He’s dead, so the Fields will have to get on without him, won’t they?’
Mary’s hands were shaking so much that the mobile slipped through her fingers, and for the few moments before she managed to cut the call, she knew that the journalist heard her ragged sobs. Then she remembered that most of Barry’s last day on earth and their wedding anniversary had been given over to his obsession with the Fields and Krystal Weedon; fury erupted, and she threw the mobile so hard across the room that it hit a framed picture of their four children, knocking it to the floor. She began to scream and cry at once, and her sister and brother-in-law both came running upstairs and burst into the room.
All they could get out of her at first was, ‘The Fields, the bloody, bloody Fields …’
‘It’s where me and Barry grew up,’ her brother-in-law muttered, but he explained no further, for fear of inflaming Mary’s hysteria.
Social worker Kay Bawden and her daughter Gaia had moved from London only four weeks previously, and were Pagford’s very newest inhabitants. Kay was unfamiliar with the contentious history of the Fields; it was simply the estate where many of her clients lived. All she knew about Barry Fairbrother was that his death had precipitated the miserable scene in her kitchen, when her lover Gavin had fled from her and her scrambled eggs, and so dashed all the hopes his love-making had roused in her.
Kay spent Tuesday lunchtime in a layby between Pagford and Yarvil, eating a sandwich in her car, and reading a large stack of notes. One of her colleagues had been signed off work due to stress, with the immediate result that Kay had been lumbered with a third of her cases. Shortly before one o’clock, she set off for the Fields.
She had already visited the estate several times, but she was not yet familiar with the warren-like streets. At last she found Foley Road, and identified from a distance the house that she thought must belong to the Weedons. The file had made it clear what she was likely to meet, and her first glimpse of the house met her expectations.
A pile of refuse was heaped against the front wall: carrier bags bulging with filth, jumbled together with old clothes and unbagged, soiled nappies. Bits of the rubbish had tumbled or been scattered over the scrubby patch of lawn, but the bulk of it remained piled beneath one of the two downstairs windows. A bald old tyre sat in the middle of the lawn; it had been shifted some time recently, because a foot away there was a flattened yellowish-brown circle of dead grass. After ringing the doorbell, Kay noticed a used condom glistening in the grass beside her feet, like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub.
She was experiencing that slight apprehension that she had never quite overcome, although it was nothing compared to the nerves with which she had faced unknown doors in the early days. Then, in spite of all her training, in spite of the fact that a colleague usually accompanied her, she had, on occasion, been truly afraid. Dangerous dogs; men brandishing knives; children with grotesque injuries; she had found them all, and worse, in her years of entering strangers’ houses.
Nobody came in answer to the bell, but she could hear a small child grizzling through the ground-floor window on her left, which was ajar. She tried rapping on the door instead and a tiny flake of peeling cream paint fell off and landed on the toe of her shoe. It reminded her of the state of her own new home. It would have been nice if Gavin had offered to help with some of her redecorating, but he had said not a word. Sometimes Kay counted over the things that he had not said or done, like a miser looking through IOUs, and felt bitter and angry, and determined to extract repayment.
She knocked again, sooner than she would have done if she had not wanted to distract herself from her own thoughts, and this time, a distant voice said, ‘I’m fuckin’ comin’.’
The door swung open to reveal a woman who appeared simultaneously child-like and ancient, dressed in a dirty pale-blue T-shirt and a pair of men’s pyjama bottoms. She was the same height as Kay, but shrunken; the bones of her face and sternum showed sharply through the thin white skin. Her hair, which was home-dyed, coarse and very red, looked like a wig on top of a skull, her pupils were minuscule and her chest virtually breastless.
‘Hello, are you Terri? I’m Kay Bawden, from Social Services. I’m covering for Mattie Knox.’
There were silvery pockmarks all over the woman’s fragile grey-white arms, and an angry red, open sore on the inside of one forearm. A wide area of scar tissue on her right arm and lower neck gave the skin a shiny plastic appearance. Kay had known an addict in London who had accidentally set fire to her house, and realized too late what was happening.
‘Yeah, righ’,’ said Terri, after an overlong pause. When she spoke, she seemed much older; several of her teeth were missing. She turned her back on Kay and took a few unsteady steps down the dark hallway. Kay followed. The house smelt of stale food, of sweat, of unshifted filth. Terri led Kay through the first door on the left, into a tiny sitting room.
There were no books, no pictures, no photographs, no television; nothing except a pair of filthy old armchairs and a broken set of shelves. Debris littered the floor. A pile of brand-new cardboard boxes piled against the wall struck an incongruous note.
A bare-legged little boy was standing in the middle of the floor, dressed in a T-shirt and a bulging pull-up nappy. Kay knew from the file that he was three and a half. His whining seemed unconscious and unmotivated, a sort of engine noise to signal that he was there. He was clutching a miniature cereal packet.
‘So this must be Robbie?’ said Kay.
The boy looked at her when she said his name, but kept grizzling.
Terri shoved aside a scratched old biscuit tin, which had been sitting on one of the dirty frayed armchairs, and curled herself into the seat, watching Kay from beneath drooping eyelids. Kay took the other chair, on the arm of which was perched an overflowing ashtray. Cigarette ends had fallen into the seat of Kay’s chair; she could feel them beneath her thighs.
‘Hello, Robbie,’ said Kay, opening Terri’s file.
The little boy continued to whine, shaking the cereal packet; something inside it rattled.
‘What have you got in there?’ Kay asked.
He did not answer, but shook the packet more vigorously. A small plastic figure flew out of it, soared in an arc and fell down behind the cardboard boxes. Robbie began to wail. Kay watched Terri, who was staring at her son, blank-faced. Eventually, Terri murmured, ‘S’up, Robbie?’
‘Shall we see if we can get it out?’ said Kay, quite glad of a reason to stand up and brush down the back of her legs. ‘Let’s have a look.’
She put her head close to the wall to look into the gap behind the boxes. The little figure was wedged near the top. She forced her hand into the gap. The boxes were heavy and difficult to move. Kay managed to grasp the model, which, once she had it in her hand, she saw to be a squat, fat Buddha-like man, bright purple all over.
‘Here you are,’ she said.
Robbie’s wailing ceased; he took the figure and put it back inside the cereal packet, which he started to shake again.
Kay glanced around. Two small toy cars lay upside down under the broken shelves.
‘Do you like cars?’ Kay asked Robbie, pointing at them.
He did not follow the direction of her finger, but squinted at her with a mixture of calculation and curiosity. Then he trotted off and picked up a car and held it up for her to see.
‘Broom,’ he said. ‘Ca.’
‘That’s right,’ said Kay. ‘Very good. Car. Broom broom.’
She sat back down and took her notepad out of her bag.
‘So, Terri. How have things been going?’
There was a pause before Terri said, ‘All righ’.’
‘Just to explain: Mattie has been signed off sick, so I’m covering for her. I’ll need to go over some of the information she’s left me, to check that nothing’s changed since she saw you last week, all right?
‘So, let’s see: Robbie is in nursery now, isn’t he? Four mornings a week and two afternoons?’
Kay’s voice seemed to reach Terri only distantly. It was like talking to somebody sitting at the bottom of a well.
‘Yeah,’ she said, after a pause.
‘How’s that going? Is he enjoying it?’
Robbie crammed the matchbox car into the cereal box. He picked up one of the cigarette butts that had fallen off Kay’s trousers, and squashed it on top of the car and the purple Buddha.
‘Yeah,’ said Terri drowsily.
But Kay was poring over the last of the untidy notes Mattie had left before she had been signed off.
‘Shouldn’t he be there today, Terri? Isn’t Tuesday one of the days he goes?’
Terri seemed to be fighting a desire to sleep. Once or twice her head rocked a little on her shoulders. Finally she said, ‘Krystal was s’posed to drop him and she never.’
‘Krystal is your daughter, isn’t she? How old is she?’
‘Fourteen,’ said Terri dreamily, ”n’a half.’
Kay could see from her notes that Krystal was sixteen. There was a long pause.
Two chipped mugs stood at the foot of Terri’s armchair. The dirty liquid in one of them had a bloody look. Terri’s arms were folded across her flat breast.
‘I had him dressed,’ said Terri, dragging the words from deep in her consciousness.
‘Sorry, Terri, but I’ve got to ask,’ said Kay. ‘Have you used this morning?’
Terri passed a bird’s claw hand over her mouth.
‘Wantashit,’ said Robbie, and he scurried towards the door.
‘Does he need help?’ Kay asked, as Robbie vanished from sight, and they heard him scampering upstairs.
‘Nah, ‘e can doot alone,’ slurred Terri. She propped her drooping head on her fist, her elbow on the armchair. Robbie let out a shout from the landing.
They heard him thumping wood. Terri did not move.
‘Shall I help him?’ Kay suggested.
‘Yeah,’ said Terri.
Kay climbed the stairs and operated the stiff handle on the door for Robbie. The room smelled rank. The bath was grey, with successive brown tidemarks around it, and the toilet had not been flushed. Kay did this before allowing Robbie to scramble onto the seat. He screwed up his face and strained loudly, indifferent to her presence. There was a loud splash, and a noisome new note was added to the already putrid air. He got down and pulled up his bulging nappy without wiping; Kay made him come back, and tried to persuade him to do it for himself, but the action seemed quite foreign to him. In the end she did it for him. His bottom was sore: crusty, red and irritated. The nappy stank of ammonia. She tried to remove it, but he yelped, lashed out at her, then pulled away, scampering back down to the sitting room with his nappy sagging. Kay wanted to wash her hands, but there was no soap. Trying not to inhale, she closed the bathroom door behind her.
She glanced into the bedrooms before returning downstairs. The contents of all three spilt out onto the cluttered landing. They were all sleeping on mattresses. Robbie seemed to be sharing a room with his mother. A couple of toys lay among the dirty clothes strewn all over the floor: cheap, plastic and too young for him. To Kay’s surprise, the duvet and pillows both had covers on them.
Back in the sitting room, Robbie was whining again, banging his fist against the stack of cardboard boxes. Terri was watching from beneath half-closed eyelids. Kay brushed off the seat of her chair before sitting back down.
‘Terri, you’re on the methadone programme at the Bellchapel Clinic, isn’t that right?’
‘Mm,’ said Terri drowsily.
‘And how’s that going, Terri?’
Pen poised, Kay waited, pretending that the answer was not sitting in front of her.
‘Are you still going to the clinic, Terri?’
‘Las’ week. Friday, I goes.’
Robbie pounded the boxes with his fists.
‘Can you tell me how much methadone you’re on?’
‘Hundred and fifteen mils,’ said Terri.
It did not surprise Kay that Terri could remember this, but not the age of her daughter.
‘Mattie says here that your mother has been helping with Robbie and Krystal; is that still the case?’
Robbie flung his hard, compact little body against the pile of boxes, which swayed.
‘Be careful, Robbie,’ said Kay, and Terri said, ‘Leave ’em,’ with the closest thing to alertness Kay had heard in her dead voice.
Robbie returned to beating the boxes with his fists, for the pleasure, apparently, of listening to the hollow drumbeat.
‘Terri, is your mother still helping to look after Robbie?’
‘Not m’mother, gran.’
‘My gran, innit. She dun … she ain’t well.’
Kay glanced over at Robbie again, her pen at the ready. He was not underweight; she knew that from the feel and look of him, half-naked, as she had wiped his backside. His T-shirt was dirty, but his hair, when she had bent over him, had smelled surprisingly of shampoo. There were no bruises on his milk-white arms and legs, but there was the sodden, bagging nappy; he was three and a half.
‘M’ungry,’ he shouted, giving the box a final, futile whack. ‘M’ungry.’
‘You c’n’ave a biscuit,’ slurred Terri, but not moving. Robbie’s yells turned to noisy sobs and screams. Terri made no attempt to leave her chair. It was impossible to talk over the din.
‘Shall I get him one?’ shouted Kay.
Robbie ran past Kay into the kitchen. It was almost as dirty as the bathroom. Other than the fridge, cooker and washing machine, there were no gadgets; the counters carried only dirty plates, another overflowing ashtray, carrier bags, mouldy bread. The lino was tacky and stuck to the soles of Kay’s shoes. Rubbish had overflowed the bin, on top of which sat a pizza box, precariously balanced.
”N there,’ said Robbie, jabbing a finger at the wall unit without looking at Kay. ”N there.’
More food than Kay had expected was stacked in the cupboard: tins, a packet of biscuits, a jar of instant coffee. She took two biscuits from the packet and handed them to him; he snatched them and ran away again, back to his mother.
‘So, do you like going to the nursery, Robbie?’ she asked him, as he sat scoffing the biscuits on the floor.
He did not answer.
‘Yeah, ‘e likes it,’ said Terri, slightly more awake. ‘Don’ you, Robbie? ‘E likes it.’
‘When was he last there, Terri?’
‘Las’ time. Yesterday.’
‘Yesterday was Monday, he couldn’t have been there then,’ said Kay, making notes. ‘That isn’t one of the days he goes.’
‘I’m asking about nursery. Robbie’s supposed to be there today. I need to know when he was last there.’
‘I told you, din’ I? Las’ time.’
Her eyes were more fully open than Kay had yet seen them. The timbre of her voice was still flat, but antagonism was struggling to the surface.
‘Are you a dyke?’ she asked.
‘No,’ said Kay, still writing.
‘You look like a dyke,’ said Terri.
Kay continued to write.
‘Juice,’ Robbie shouted, chocolate smeared over his chin.
This time Kay did not move. After another long pause, Terri lurched out of her chair and wove her way into the hall. Kay leaned forward and shifted the loose lid of the biscuit tin Terri had displaced when she sat down. Inside was a syringe, a bit of grubby cotton wool, a rusty-looking spoon and a dusty polythene bag. Kay snapped the lid back on firmly, while Robbie watched her. Terri returned, after some distant clattering, carrying a cup of juice, which she shoved at the little boy.
‘There,’ she said, more to Kay than to her son, and she sat back down again. She missed the seat and collided with the arm of the chair on her first attempt; Kay heard the bone collide with wood, but Terri seemed to feel no pain. She settled herself back into the sagging cushions and surveyed the social worker with bleary indifference.
Kay had read the file from cover to cover. She knew that nearly everything of value in Terri Weedon’s life had been sucked into the black hole of her addiction; that it had cost her two children; that she barely clung to two more; that she prostituted herself to pay for heroin; that she had been involved in every sort of petty crime; and that she was currently attempting rehab for the umpteenth time.
But not to feel, not to care … Right now, Kay thought, she’s happier than I am.
At the start of the second post-lunch period, Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall walked out of school. His experiment in truancy was undertaken in no rash spirit; he had decided the previous night that he would miss the double period of computing that finished the afternoon. He might have chosen to skip any lesson, but it so happened that his best friend Andrew Price (known to Fats as Arf) was in a different set in computing, and Fats, in spite of his best efforts, had not succeeded in being demoted to join him.
Fats and Andrew were perhaps equally aware that the admiration in their relationship flowed mostly from Andrew to Fats; but Fats alone suspected that he needed Andrew more than Andrew needed him. Lately, Fats had started to regard this dependency in the light of a weakness, but he reasoned that, while his liking for Andrew’s company lingered, he might as well miss a double period where he had to do without it anyway.
Fats had been told by a reliable informant that the one fail-safe way of quitting the Winterdown grounds without being spotted from a window was to climb over the side wall by the bike shed. This, therefore, he did, dropping down by his fingertips into the narrow lane on the other side. He landed without mishap, strode off along the narrow path and turned left, onto the busy dirty main road.
Safely on his way, he lit a cigarette and proceeded past the run-down little shops. Five blocks along, Fats turned left again, into the first of the streets that made up the Fields. He loosened his school tie with one hand as he walked, but did not remove it. He did not care that he was, conspicuously, a schoolboy. Fats had never even attempted to customize his uniform in any way; to pin badges on his lapels or adjust his tie knot to suit fashion; he wore his school clothes with the disdain of a convict.
He had decided that he possessed traits that were authentic, which ought therefore to be encouraged and cultivated; but also that some of his habits of thought were the unnatural product of his unfortunate upbringing, and consequently inauthentic and to be purged. Lately, he had been experimenting with acting on what he thought were his authentic impulses, and ignoring or suppressing the guilt and fear (inauthentic) that such actions seemed to engender. Undoubtedly, this was becoming easier with practice. He wanted to toughen up inside, to become invulnerable, to be free of the fear of consequences: to rid himself of spurious notions of goodness and badness.
One of the things that had begun to irritate him about his own dependence on Andrew was that the latter’s presence sometimes curbed and limited the full expression of Fats’ authentic self. Somewhere in Andrew was a self-drawn map of what constituted fair play, and lately Fats had caught looks of displeasure, confusion and disappointment poorly disguised on his old friend’s face. Andrew pulled up short at extremes of baiting and derision. Fats did not hold this against Andrew; it would have been inauthentic for Andrew to join in, unless that was what he really, truly wanted. The trouble was that Andrew was displaying an attachment to the kind of morality against which Fats was waging an increasingly determined war. Fats suspected that the right thing to do, the correctly unsentimental act in pursuit of full authenticity, would have been to cut Andrew adrift; and yet he still preferred Andrew’s company to anybody else’s.
Fats was convinced that he knew himself particularly well; he explored the nooks and crevices of his own psyche with an attention he had recently ceased to give to anything else. He spent hours interrogating himself about his own impulses, desires and fears, attempting to discriminate between those that were truly his and those that he had been taught to feel. He examined his own attachments (nobody else he knew, he was sure, was ever this honest with themselves; they drifted, half asleep, through life): and his conclusion had been that Andrew, whom he had known since he was five, was the person for whom he felt the most straightforward affection; that, even though he was now old enough to see through her, he retained an attachment to his mother that was not his own fault; and that he actively despised Cubby, who represented the acme and pinnacle of inauthenticity.
On the Facebook page that Fats curated with a care he devoted to almost nothing else, he had highlighted a quotation he had found on his parents’ bookshelves:
I do not want believers, I think I am too malicious to believe in myself … I have a terrible fear I shall one day be pronounced holy … I do not want to be a saint, rather even a buffoon … perhaps I am a buffoon …
Andrew liked it very much, and Fats liked how impressed he was.
In the time it took him to pass the bookmaker’s – mere seconds – Fats’ thoughts lit on his father’s dead friend, Barry Fairbrother. Three long loping strides past the racehorses printed on posters behind the grubby glass, and Fats saw Barry’s joking, bearded face, and heard Cubby’s booming excuse of a laugh, which had often rung out almost before Barry had made one of his feeble jokes, in the mere excitement of his presence. Fats did not wish to examine these memories any further; he did not interrogate himself on the reasons for his instinctive inner flinch; he did not ask himself whether the dead man had been authentic or inauthentic; he dismissed the idea of Barry Fairbrother, and his father’s ludicrous distress, and pressed on.
Fats was curiously joyless these days, even though he made everybody else laugh as much as ever. His quest to rid himself of restrictive morality was an attempt to regain something he was sure had been stifled in him, something that he had lost as he had left childhood. What Fats wanted to recover was a kind of innocence, and the route he had chosen back to it was through all the things that were supposed to be bad for you, but which, paradoxically, seemed to Fats to be the one true way to authenticity; to a kind of purity. It was curious how often everything was back to front, the inverse of what they told you; Fats was starting to think that if you flipped every bit of received wisdom on its head you would have the truth. He wanted to journey through dark labyrinths and wrestle with the strangeness that lurked within; he wanted to crack open piety and expose hypocrisy; he wanted to break taboos and squeeze wisdom from their bloody hearts; he wanted to achieve a state of amoral grace, and be baptized backwards into ignorance and simplicity.
And so he decided to break one of the few school rules he had not yet contravened, and walked away, into the Fields. It was not merely that the crude pulse of reality seemed nearer here than in any other place he knew; he also had a vague hope of stumbling across certain notorious people about whom he was curious, and, though he barely acknowledged it to himself, because it was one of the few yearnings for which he did not have words, he sought an open door, and a dawning recognition, and a welcome to a home he did not know he had.
Moving past the putty-coloured houses on foot, rather than in his mother’s car, he noticed that many of them were free of graffiti and debris, and that some imitated (as he saw it) the gentility of Pagford, with net curtains and ornaments on the windowsills. These details were less readily apparent from a moving vehicle, where Fats’ eye was irresistibly drawn from boarded window to debris-strewn lawn. The neater houses held no interest for Fats. What drew him on were the places where chaos or lawlessness was in evidence, even if only of the puerile spray-canned variety.
Somewhere near here (he did not know exactly where) lived Dane Tully. Tully’s family was infamous. His two older brothers and his father spent a lot of time in prison. There was a rumour that the last time Dane had had a fight (with a nineteen-year-old, so the story went, from the Cantermill Estate), his father had escorted him to the rendezvous, and had stayed to fight Dane’s opponent’s older brothers. Tully had turned up at school with his face cut, his lip swollen and his eye blacked. Everyone agreed that he had put in one of his infrequent appearances simply to show off his injuries.
Fats was quite sure that he would have played it differently. To care what anyone else thought of your smashed face was inauthentic. Fats would have liked to fight, and then to go about his normal life, and if anyone knew it would be because they had glimpsed him by chance.
Fats had never been hit, despite offering increasing provocation. He thought, often these days, about how it would feel to get into a fight. He suspected that the state of authenticity he sought would include violence; or, at least, would not preclude violence. To be prepared to hit, and to take a hit, seemed to him to be a form of courage to which he ought to aspire. He had never needed his fists: his tongue had sufficed; but the emergent Fats was starting to despise his own articulacy and to admire authentic brutality. The matter of knives, Fats debated with himself more gingerly. To buy a blade now, and let it be known he was carrying it, would be an act of crashing inauthenticity, a pitiful aping of the likes of Dane Tully; Fats’ insides crawled at the thought of it. If ever the time came when he needed to carry a knife, that would be different. Fats did not rule out the possibility that such a time would come, though he admitted to himself that the idea was frightening. Fats was scared of things that pierced flesh, of needles and blades. He had been the only one to faint when they had had their meningitis vaccinations back at St Thomas’s. One of the few ways that Andrew had found to discompose Fats was to unsheath his EpiPen around him; the adrenalin-filled needle that Andrew was supposed to carry with him at all times because of his dangerous nut allergy. It made Fats feel sick when Andrew brandished it at him or pretended to jab him with it.
Wandering without any particular destination, Fats caught sight of the sign to Foley Road. That was where Krystal Weedon lived. He was unsure whether she was in school today, and it was not his intention to make her think that he had come looking for her.
They had an agreement to meet on Friday evening. Fats had told his parents that he was going to Andrew’s because they were collaborating on an English project. Krystal seemed to understand what they were going to do; she seemed up for it. She had so far allowed him to insert two fingers inside her, hot and firm and slippery; he had unhooked her bra and been permitted to place his hands on her warm, heavy breasts. He had sought her out deliberately at the Christmas disco; led her out of the hall under Andrew’s and the others’ incredulous gazes, round the back of the drama hall. She had seemed quite as surprised as anybody else, but had offered, as he had hoped and expected, virtually no resistance. His targeting of Krystal had been a deliberate act; and he had had his cool and brazen retort ready, when it had come to facing down his mates’ jeers and taunts.
‘If you want chips, you don’t go to a fucking salad bar.’
He had thought out that analogy in advance, but he had still had to spell it out for them.
‘You boys keep wanking. I want a shag.’
That had wiped the smiles off their faces. He could tell that all of them, Andrew included, were forced to choke down their jeers at his choice, in admiration of his unabashed pursuit of the one, the only true goal. Fats had undoubtedly chosen the most direct route to get there; none of them could argue with his common-sense practicality, and Fats could tell that every single one of them was asking himself why he had not had the guts to consider this means to a most satisfactory end.
‘Do me a favour, and don’t mention this to my mother, all right?’ Fats had muttered to Krystal, coming up for air in between long, wet explorations of each other’s mouths, while his thumbs had rubbed backwards and forwards over her nipples.
She had half sniggered, then kissed him with more aggression. She had not asked him why he had picked her, had not asked him anything really; she seemed, like him, to be pleased by the reactions of their entirely separate tribes, to glory in the watchers’ confusion; even in his friends’ pantomime of disgust. He and Krystal had barely spoken to each other during three further bouts of carnal exploration and experimentation. Fats had engineered all of them, but she had made herself more readily available than usual, choosing to hang about in places he might find her easily. Friday night was the first time they would meet by pre-arrangement. He had bought condoms.
The prospect of finally going all the way had something to do with him truanting today and coming to the Fields, although he had not thought of Krystal herself (as opposed to her splendid breasts and that miraculously unguarded vagina) until he saw the name of her street.
Fats doubled back, lighting another cigarette. Something about seeing the name of Foley Road had given him a strange sense that his timing was wrong. The Fields today were banal and inscrutable, and that which he sought, the thing he hoped to recognize when he found it, was curled up somewhere, out of sight. And so he walked back to school.
Nobody was answering their telephone. Back in the Child Protection team’s room, Kay had been punching in numbers on and off for nearly two hours, leaving messages, asking everyone to call her back: the Weedons’ health visitor, their family doctor, the Cantermill Nursery and the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic. Terri Weedon’s file lay open on the desk in front of her, bulging and battered.
‘Using again, is she?’ said Alex, one of the women with whom Kay shared an office. ‘Bellchapel’ll kick her out for good this time. She claims she’s terrified Robbie’ll be taken off her, but she can’t keep off the smack.’
‘It’s the third time she’s been through Bellchapel,’ said Una.
On the basis of what she had seen that afternoon, Kay thought the time was right for a case review, to pull together those professionals who shared responsibility for individual fragments of Terri Weedon’s life. She continued to press redial between dealing with other work, while in the corner of the office their own telephone rang repeatedly and clicked immediately onto the answering machine. The Child Protection team’s room was cramped and cluttered, and it smelt of spoilt milk, because Alex and Una had a habit of emptying the dregs of their coffee cups into the pot of a depressed-looking yucca plant in the corner.
Mattie’s most recent notes were untidy and chaotic, peppered with crossings out, misdated and partial. Several key documents were missing from the file, including a letter sent by the addiction clinic a fortnight previously. It was quicker to ask Alex and Una for information.
‘Last case review woulda been …’ said Alex, frowning at the yucca plant, ‘over a year ago, I reckon.’
‘And they thought Robbie was OK to stay with her then, obviously,’ said Kay, the receiver pressed between ear and shoulder as she tried and failed to find the notes of the review in the bulging folder.
‘It wasn’t a case of him staying with her; it was whether he was going to go back to her or not. He was put out to a foster mother, because Terri was beaten up by a client and ended up in hospital. She got clean, got out, and was mad to get Robbie back. She went back on the Bellchapel programme, she was off the game and makin’ a proper effort. Her mother was saying she’d help. So she got him home and a few months later she’d started shooting up again.’
‘It’s not Terri’s mother who helps, though, is it?’ said Kay, whose head was starting to ache, as she tried to decipher Mattie’s big, untidy writing. ‘It’s her grandmother, the kids’ great-grandmother. So she must be knocking on, and Terri said something about her being ill, this morning. If Terri’s the only carer now …’
‘The daughter’s sixteen,’ said Una. ‘She mostly takes care of Robbie.’
‘Well, she’s not doing a great job,’ said Kay. ‘He was in a pretty bad state when I got there this morning.’
But she had seen far worse: welts and sores, gashes and burns, tar-black bruises; scabies and nits; babies lying on carpets covered in dog shit; kids crawling on broken bones; and once (she dreamed of it, still), a child who had been locked in a cupboard for five days by his psychotic stepfather. That one had made the national news. The most immediate danger to Robbie Weedon’s safety had been the pile of heavy boxes in his mother’s sitting room, which he had attempted to climb when he realized that it attracted Kay’s full attention. Kay had carefully restacked them into two lower piles before leaving. Terri had not liked her touching the boxes; nor had she liked Kay telling her that she ought to take off Robbie’s sodden nappy. Terri had been roused, in fact, to foul-mouthed, though still slightly hazy, fury, and had told Kay to fuck off and stay away.
Kay’s mobile rang and she picked it up. It was Terri’s key drug worker.
‘I’ve been trying to get you for days,’ said the woman crossly. It took several minutes for Kay to explain that she was not Mattie, but this did not much reduce the woman’s antagonism.
‘Yeah, we’re still seeing her, but she tested positive last week. If she uses again, she’s out. We’ve got twenty people right now who could take her place on the programme and maybe get some benefit from it. This is the third time she’s been through.’
Kay did not say she knew that Terri had used that morning.
‘Have either of you got any paracetamol?’ Kay asked Alex and Una, once the drug worker had given her full details of Terri’s attendance and lack of progress at the clinic, and rung off.
Kay took her painkillers with tepid tea, lacking the energy to get up and go to the water cooler in the corridor. The office was stuffy, the radiator cranked up high. As the daylight faded from the sky outside, the strip-lighting over her desk intensified: it turned her multitude of papers a bright yellow-white; buzzing black words marched in endless lines.
‘They’re going to close down Bellchapel Clinic, you watch,’ said Una, who was working at her PC with her back to Kay. ‘Got to make cuts. Council funds one of the drug workers. Pagford Parish owns the building. I heard they’re planning to tart it up and try and rent to a better-paying client. They’ve had it in for that clinic for years.’
Kay’s temple throbbed. The name of her new hometown made her feel sad. Without pausing to think, she did the thing that she had vowed not to do after he had failed to call the previous evening: she picked up her mobile and keyed in Gavin’s office number.