Read Maxwell's Island Online

Authors: M.J. Trow

Maxwell's Island

Maxwell's Island

M.J. T
ROW

To Louise;
following in Maxwell's footsteps.

The body at the bottom of the stairs had had a favourite philosophical conundrum he aired when mildly drunk at dinner parties and the chatting flagged. It was an oldie, but nonetheless a goldie; if a tree falls in a forest with no ears to hear it, does it make a noise? If he was able to take part in the current proceedings, it would have given him a whole new conversational gambit. Does a house with only a dead body in it make a noise? Do the pipes still gurgle? Does the gas boiler still make a pop and a sigh as the thermostat kicks in? Does the fridge make that judder and clink as the hopelessly iced-up condenser tries one more time to stay down to the chosen temperature? Does the bottle of vodka in the freezer click in response as its almost-frozen heart feels a minuscule drop in degrees? Does the grumbling of the continuing digestion of the frozen meal-for-one in the dead man's stomach still sound as horribly loud as it always did in the quiet bits at
the cinema with yet another failing date? Does the whisper of settling blood, the susurration of hair in the draught under the front door, the long, slow sigh of the last escaping breath; do these tiny things still make a noise, now that the ears of the careful murderer, tucked under a dark cap to make escape more likely, detection less certain, have, like Elvis, left the building?

Maxwell leant back in his steamer chair, the sun warming his face, and he felt that all was pretty good with the world. If he reached out slightly with his right hand, he felt a cool glass, condensation running down the side. If he reached out slightly with his left, he came into contact with the tousled head of his little boy, intent on a game involving a lot of muttering and clashing together of small plastic soldiers. If he stretched one toe, he could annoy the large black and white tom cat stretched out on the rug recently vacated by his other reason to be cheerful, his wife. He sighed and snuggled infinitesimally deeper into the cushion and prepared to rest his eyes for a while longer. A small metaphorical cloud passed over his head. His current situation had all the advantages of retirement, were it not for one thing. He hadn't actually retired. This was, in fact, the last day of yet another summer holiday, a time which seemed to
stretch on for ever when it began but, when viewed from this end, was horribly short. It seemed like only this morning that he had been in the hallowed precincts of Leighford High School, with its smell of floral disinfectant, paper and feet. Oh, wait a minute; he had been there this morning, signing in the hopefuls and the no-hopers into the Sixth Form for another year.

‘Good God, Dave, what are you doing here?' he had asked, assuming the lad in question had thought this was the dole queue. So, the recession had scotched all hopes of Abigail going off to private school after all and there she was, sullen but proud and … two more years of Mad Lottie … ‘Jesus, make it stop'.

‘Max? Max, are you out there?' Jacquie's voice floated down from the kitchen window, one floor above.

‘I am so out there,' he muttered, in his finest Moe Szyslak. Nolan giggled and turned his head. The two Maxwell men locked eyes for a minute, and smiled at each other.

Jacquie, as ever, read his mind and possibly even his lips. ‘No, seriously, Max, could you come up for a moment? I've got to go in for the afternoon soon and I want to talk to you about October.'

‘That sounds slightly ominous, old man,' Maxwell remarked to Nolan as he heaved himself inelegantly from his chair. ‘I doubt she's talking about the Eisenstein film or the cataclysmic Russian
events of 1917 that gave rise to it. So that can only mean your mama doesn't seem to be planning to let me have a September this year. Don't eat anything poisonous while I'm gone. Don't annoy Mrs Troubridge. Don't annoy Metternich. Don't play in the traffic.'

‘Usual rules,' agreed the boy, offering a small and grubby hand for a high five.

‘Usual rules. Now, let's see what I've forgotten to do about October.' Maxwell let himself in through the back door, along what he still liked to term the ‘back passage', if only to annoy Mrs Troubridge, who abhorred any phrase reminiscent of body parts, especially those she termed ‘down below', and he sprinted up at least the bottom few stairs. Just because he still could. ‘Hello, the house,' he called as he got to the landing, keeping alive the banal scripts of B-feature western scriptwriters long dead.

‘In here,' Jacquie called from the sitting room.

He poked his head round the door and his heart fell. She was sitting in a positive welter of travel brochures. He had thought he had hidden them with some cunning. ‘Ah.' It was all he could come up with at short notice.

‘Ah. Indeed, ah,' she agreed. ‘Look what I've found.' Jacquie Carpenter-Maxwell hadn't kept the double-barrelled thing because she was a snob. As a hard-working DS, she retained ‘Carpenter' because that was how she was known to oppos
and villains alike. As wife, she used ‘Maxwell' because, hey, that was the name of the old duffer she'd married. Her red-gold hair was swept up that morning, businesslike but feminine, and in the harem pants and smock top she wore, she could still undulate for England.

‘I've been looking for those,' Maxwell offered hopefully.

‘They were in the large suitcase under the stairs.'

He struck himself on the forehead and rolled his eyes. ‘Tchah! However did they get there? I expect Mrs B put them there. In an effort to tidy up.' Peter Maxwell could have been any age really, but he'd settle for Dark, historian as he was. He never went in casual to his place of work, so the bow tie was in place from the morning's interviews and his shirt was only slightly rumpled from where he'd been wrestling with Nolan on the lawn. Yes, he had grass in his side whiskers and barbed-wire hair, but Jacquie wasn't going to tell him and Nolan thought that was usual. But Maxwell was in the last-day-of-freedom mode, his cycle clips discarded in what a more innocent age had laughingly called ‘gay abandon'.

‘Mrs B? Tidy up? Max, please.' Jacquie couldn't imagine life without Mrs B's weekly visit, when all the gossip, smell of old cigarettes and the occasional flick with a duster was visited on 38 Columbine, but as a tidier-up of trifles, considered or not, she left rather a lot to be desired. But still,
arguing wouldn't get her a holiday booked. She patted the sofa next to her. ‘Come on, you can't avoid this for ever, Max. You promised you would book us a holiday for October half-term and book us a holiday you will.' She quietly removed some of the grass from his hair.

‘Can't you do it online?' he wheedled, snuggling up next to her and smoothing his head against her cheek. It was a phrase he had heard at the chalkface where he worked.

‘No,' she laughed, pushing him off. ‘Can you?'

Despite huge advances in Maxwell's IT knowledge, including being able to switch on his laptop unaided and send emails to random recipients worldwide, he was still not falling for that. He was not going to be goaded into booking a zorbing experience for twenty-seven in the Hindu Kush in 2020 when what he was intending was a week in Lido di Jesolo, fun for all the family but especially for a family with Maxwell in it, sun, sea and Venice. He might even pop in on the Doge. He conceded defeat graciously, as was always his way, eventually. ‘Tell me where you want to go, heart, and I'll nip down to Messrs Thomas Cook and book it.'

She kissed his ear as the nearest available skin. ‘I'll let you know when I've chosen somewhere. I fancy an island, for some reason. My special preference is for somewhere Greek.'

‘That could be good,' Maxwell conceded. ‘They
filmed
The Guns of Navarone
on Rhodes, for example.'

‘Well, not there, then,' she said.

‘Does Venice count as an island?' he asked.

‘No.'

‘Well, it is one. There's a bridge and everything. Lagoons as far as the eye can see.'

‘I don't want to go to Lido di Jesolo. It will be shut in October.'

‘Venice isn't shut in October.'

Jacquie stood up and reached across Maxwell for her handbag and keys. ‘I've just got to change and then I'm off to work. I'll give it a little think while I'm ploughing through paperwork and if anything really scrummy comes to mind, I'll ring.'

Maxwell kissed the air after her disappearing back and thumbed through the brochures half-heartedly. Once upon a time, he had been a bit of a traveller. Off for whole summer holidays with an open train ticket in one pocket and a passport in another. He had had the loss of a family to try to minimise for a while. Then he got a cat, who brought the art of guilt creation when he collected him from the cattery to new heights. He could almost hear Count Metternich hissing, ‘No, I don't want to talk about it,' at him. Then he got a new family, who had polished and honed the edges of sorrow for his dead wife and child so that he could go for sometimes hours at a time without the catch in his chest as he remembered
that slick, wet road and the sound of the useless brakes screaming. And so now, though it was oh-so-nice to go travelling, it was so much nicer to stay home. But Jacquie was right. The Lido was pretty much closed in October, all those scrummy T-shirts locked away infuriatingly behind glass, and Venice had rather a lot of water, into which small boys and inattentive teachers could easily fall, taking the gloss somewhat off the holiday. So, where …?

Metternich's favourite gadget, the telephone, rang at his elbow. ‘War Office,' Maxwell muttered into the receiver, trying to clutch the dratted thing against his shoulder.

‘And before you ask,' said Jacquie, at the other end, ‘I don't mean the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Dogs, Canvey Island, Barry Island. Nor am I thinking of Jersey or any of the Channel Islands. Don't even think of the Hebrides, the Orkneys or the Scilly Isles. Anglesey is out as well.'

‘I'm very impressed,' he said, dropping the brochure he was holding and walking to the window and looking down at his wife and son in the back garden. Nolan waved and fell against his mother, giggling. He was a great ganger-upper, was Nole, but had no favourites. Love the one you're with was his motto and he spread his time equally between them. Sometimes, he ganged up against both of them, with Metternich his stout ally, and then he was most devastating of all. ‘I
had no idea your geographical knowledge was so comprehensive.'

‘I'm sure I've missed a few,' she said, modestly.

‘I'm sure you have,' he agreed. ‘But I get the general drift.' He waggled his fingers at her and blew her a kiss.

‘Same back,' she said and rang off. He looked down as she kissed her little boy on the top of his curly head and tickled Metternich between the ears. Maxwell still marvelled that the Count didn't take her hand off at the wrist when she did that. The old statesman was getting soft. He turned from the window and looked again at the pile of bright brochures on the coffee table. Everywhere looked the same: white beaches, coloured umbrellas, laughing couples loping insouciantly along the beach. He silently hoped that as soon as the picture was taken one of them fell over a beach ball, trod on a weever fish, something to wipe those smiles off their faces. Then he turned his back on the lot of them and went downstairs to teach his boy how the Battle of Waterloo
really
went.

 

The next day, with the smell of feet even more all-pervading, Maxwell was following his usual First-Day-Back pattern. He was considering getting a badge to wear which would announce ‘No, I haven't retired after all', which would save his vocal cords and his temper. He admired the new paintwork along the Sixth Form corridor which
had already gained that strange grey smear at the average height of a seventeen-year-old boy's backpack. He sipped his coffee and sighed, letting his head loll on the back of his chair. There was a time in every day, but more welcome on this day especially, when everyone was otherwise engaged. They were in lessons, in Tutor Time, in the process of realising that the Sixth Form was not for them after all. The current record for the shortest Sixth Form career stood at a staggering fifteen minutes, but every new year brought a new sweep in the staffroom; the prize wasn't usually much, for example, this year it was a box of biscuits only slightly past their sell-by, but it was the kudos that counted. The Head of Science had stuck-up Abigail down for one hour eight minutes.
Everybody
was hoping Mad Lottie wouldn't survive the round sixty. Maxwell listened to the sounds of the school going about its business. The low murmur of voices, the distant slam of a door, the crash. He sat up, all senses humming. The scream. Somehow, his body was on its feet and running for the head of the stairs before his ears had stopped analysing the sound.

A gaggle of rubbernecking children had gathered at the top of the stairs leading down from the Sixth Form mezzanine level to the lobby. A similar gaggle of rubbernecking staff had gathered at the bottom of the stairs, and to as little effect. The Head of Sixth Form, using a combination of hissed threats,
brute strength and guile, was soon at the top of the broad flight and was hurtling down, taking the stairs two at a time, not always by choice. Spreadeagled at the bottom, head down, legs up the slope, lay Sally Greenhow, once a protégée of Maxwell's, now the occupant of a ludicrously titled job in the department he still thought of as Special Needs. Her blonde hair was spread across the already rather manky flooring of the entrance hall, some of it under the no-doubt well-meaning foot of Pansy Donaldson. He gestured her to step back and for once she complied. He didn't want Sally to be bald as well as bruised. It would be too embarrassing. How did that old rock anthem go? Long, bald Sally? Everything seemed to be pointing in the right direction, and as he came nearer the teacher groaned and tried to get up, collapsing back again when the pain shot through her.

‘Max,' she muttered. ‘I seem to have fallen down the stairs.'

He knelt by her side. ‘Never mind, old thing,' he said. ‘Don't move. Someone has sent for an ambulance.' Managing to avoid the moronic interrogative, the use of which carried the death penalty in all of his classes, he nevertheless made his statement into a question. Heads swivelled, eyebrows and shoulders raised. Eventually Thingie One, receptionist par excellence, tumbled to the obvious conclusion and trotted off to call an ambulance. As self-appointed first-aider in the
absence of Sylvia Matthews, Pansy moved in, enormous biceps flexing to take the strain.

‘I don't think we ought to move her, Mrs Donaldson,' Maxwell warned, his voice quiet but scary. ‘Nurse Matthews will be here in a minute and I'm sure she will advise.'

‘But all the blood is rushing to her head,' protested the woman.

‘At least it isn't all over the floor,' Maxwell said. ‘And I'm sure she won't mind a bit of blood in her head if the choice is that or a displaced fracture. Would you, Sal? Don't nod or shake,' he added, placing a hand on the top of her head, ‘Just focus on all the noughts on that compensation figure.'

‘I'm fine,' she whispered and closed her eyes.

Brisk footsteps along the corridor brought blessed relief. ‘What's going on here?' Sylvia Matthews' voice could clear a crowd almost as well as Maxwell's. ‘Everybody back to where you should be. Mr Maxwell doesn't need an audience.' She looked down. ‘Oh, sorry, Mr Maxwell. I heard you had fallen on Mrs Greenhow.'

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