Shirley Mollison was convinced that her husband and son were over-stating the danger to the council of leaving the Ghost's posts online. She could not see how the messages were worse than gossip, and that, she knew, was not yet punishable by law; nor did she believe that the law would be foolish and unreasonable enough to punish her for what somebody else had written: that would be monstrously unfair. Proud as she was of Miles' law degree, she was sure that he must have this bit wrong.
She was checking the message boards even more frequently than Miles and Howard had advised, but not because she was afraid of legal consequences. Certain as she was that Barry Fairbrother's Ghost had not yet finished his self-appointed task of crushing the pro-Fielders, she was eager to be the first to set eyes on his next post. Several times a day she scurried into Patricia's old room, and clicked on the web page. Sometimes a little frisson would run through her while she was hoovering or peeling potatoes and she would race to the study, only to be disappointed again.
Shirley felt a special, secret kinship with the Ghost. He had chosen her website as the forum where he would expose the hypocrisy of Howard's opponents, and this, she felt, entitled her to the pride of the naturalist who has constructed a habitat in which a rare species deigns to nest. But there was more to it than that. Shirley relished the Ghost's anger, his savagery and his audacity. She wondered who he might be, visualizing a strong, shadowy man standing behind herself and Howard, on their side, cutting a path for them through the opponents who crumpled as he slayed them with their own ugly truths.
Somehow, none of the men in Pagford seemed worthy to be the Ghost; she would have felt disappointed to learn that it was any of the anti-Fielders she knew.
'That's if it's a man,' said Maureen.
'Good point,' said Howard.
'I think it's a man,' said Shirley coolly.
When Howard left for the cafe on Sunday morning, Shirley, still in her dressing gown, and holding her cup of tea, padded automatically to the study and brought up the website.
Fantasies of a Deputy Headmaster posted by The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother.
She set down her tea with trembling hands, clicked on the post and read it, open-mouthed. Then she ran to the lounge, seized the telephone and called the cafe, but the number was engaged.
A mere five minutes later, Parminder Jawanda, who had also developed a habit of looking at the council message boards much more frequently than usual, opened up the site and saw the post. Like Shirley, her immediate reaction was to seize a telephone.
The Walls were breakfasting without their son, who was still asleep upstairs. When Tessa picked up, Parminder cut across her friend's greeting.
'There's a post about Colin on the council website. Don't let him see it, whatever you do.'
Tessa's frightened eyes swivelled to her husband, but he was a mere three feet from the receiver and had already heard every word that Parminder had spoken so loudly and clearly.
'I'll call you back,' said Tessa urgently. 'Colin,' she said, fumbling to replace the receiver, 'Colin, wait - '
But he had already stalked out of the room, bobbing up and down, his arms stiff by his side, and Tessa had to jog to catch him up.
'Perhaps it's better not to look,' she urged him, as his big, knobble-knuckled hand moved the mouse across the desk, 'or I can read it and - '
Fantasies of a Deputy Headmaster
One of the men hoping to represent the community at Parish Council level is Colin Wall, Deputy Headmaster at Winterdown Comprehensive School. Voters might be interested to know that Wall, a strict disciplinarian, has a very unusual fantasy life. Mr Wall is so frightened that a pupil might accuse him of inappropriate sexual behaviour that he has often needed time off work to calm himself down again. Whether Mr Wall has actually fondled a first year, the Ghost can only guess. The fervour of his feverish fantasies suggests that, even if he hasn't, he would like to.
Stuart wrote that, thought Tessa, at once.
Colin's face was ghastly in the light pouring out of the monitor. It was how she imagined he would look if he had had a stroke.
'Colin - '
'I suppose Fiona Shawcross has told people,' he whispered.
The catastrophe he had always feared was upon him. It was the end of everything. He had always imagined taking sleeping tablets. He wondered whether they had enough in the house.
Tessa, who had been momentarily thrown by the mention of the headmistress, said, 'Fiona wouldn't - anyway, she doesn't know - '
'She knows I've got OCD.'
'Yes, but she doesn't know what you - what you're afraid of - '
'She does,' said Colin. 'I told her, before the last time I needed sick leave.'
'Why?' Tessa burst out. 'What on earth did you tell her for?'
'I wanted to explain why it was so important I had time off,' said Colin, almost humbly. 'I thought she needed to know how serious it was.'
Tessa fought down a powerful desire to shout at him. The tinge of distaste with which Fiona treated him and talked about him was explained; Tessa had never liked her, always thought her hard and unsympathetic.
'Be that as it may,' she said, 'I don't think Fiona's got anything to do - '
'Not directly,' said Colin, pressing a trembling hand to his sweating upper lip. 'But Mollison's heard gossip from somewhere.'
It wasn't Mollison. Stuart wrote that, I know he did. Tessa recognized her son in every line. She was even astonished that Colin could not see it, that he had not connected the message with yesterday's row, with hitting his son. He couldn't even resist a bit of alliteration. He must have done all of them - Simon Price. Parminder. Tessa was horror-struck.
But Colin was not thinking about Stuart. He was recalling thoughts that were as vivid as memories, as sensory impressions, violent, vile ideas: a hand seizing and squeezing as he passed through densely packed young bodies; a cry of pain, a child's face contorted. And then asking himself, again and again: had he done it? Had he enjoyed it? He could not remember. He only knew that he kept thinking about it, seeing it happen, feeling it happen. Soft flesh through a thin cotton blouse; seize, squeeze, pain and shock; a violation. How many times? He did not know. He had spent hours wondering how many of the children knew he did it, whether they had spoken to each other, how long it would be until he was exposed.
Not knowing how many times he had offended, and unable to trust himself, he burdened himself with so many papers and files that he had no hands free to attack as he moved through the corridors. He shouted at the swarming children to get out of the way, to stand clear, as he passed. None of it helped. There were always stragglers, running past him, up against him, and with his hands burdened he imagined other ways to have improper contact with them: a swiftly repositioned elbow brushing against a breast; a side-step to ensure bodily contact; a leg accidentally entangled, so that the child's groin made contact with his flesh.
'Colin,' said Tessa.
But he had started to cry again, great sobs shaking his big, ungainly body, and when she put her arms around him and pressed her face to his her own tears wet his skin.
A few miles away, in Hilltop House, Simon Price was sitting at a brand-new family computer in the sitting room. Watching Andrew cycle away to his weekend job with Howard Mollison, and the reflection that he had been forced to pay full market price for this computer, made him feel irritable and additionally hard done by. Simon had not looked at the Parish Council website once since the night that he had thrown out the stolen PC, but it occurred to him, by an association of ideas, to check whether the message that had cost him his job was still on the site and thus viewable by potential employers.
It was not. Simon did not know that he owed this to his wife, because Ruth was scared of admitting that she had telephoned Shirley, even to request the removal of the post. Slightly cheered by its absence, Simon looked for the post about Parminder, but that was gone too.
He was about to close the site, when he saw the newest post, which was entitled Fantasies of a Deputy Headmaster.
He read it through twice and then, alone in the sitting room, he began to laugh. It was a savage triumphant laugh. He had never taken to that big, bobbing man with his massive forehead. It was good to know that he, Simon, had got off very lightly indeed by comparison.
Ruth came into the room, smiling timidly; she was glad to hear Simon laughing, because he had been in a dreadful mood since losing his job.
'You know Fats' old man? Wall, the deputy headmaster? He's only a bloody paedo.'
Ruth's smile slipped. She hurried forward to read the post.
'I'm going to shower,' said Simon, in high good humour.
Ruth waited until he had left the room before trying to call her friend Shirley, and alert her to this new scandal, but the Mollisons' telephone was engaged.
Shirley had, at last, reached Howard at the delicatessen. She was still in her dressing gown; he was pacing up and down the little back room, behind the counter.
'... been trying to get you for ages - '
'Mo was using the phone. What did it say? Slowly.'
Shirley read the message about Colin, enunciating like a newsreader. She had not reached the end, when he cut across her.
'Did you copy this down or something?'
'Sorry?' she said.
'Are you reading it off the screen? Is it still on there? Have you taken it off?'
'I'm dealing with it now,' lied Shirley, unnerved. 'I thought you'd like to - '
'Get it off there now! God above, Shirley, this is getting out of hand - we can't have stuff like that on there!'
'I just thought you ought to - '
'Make sure you've got rid of it, and we'll talk about it when I get home!' Howard shouted.
Shirley was furious: they never raised their voices to each other.