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Authors: M.J. Trow

Maxwell's Island (2 page)

BOOK: Maxwell's Island
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‘That's a new record,' Maxwell remarked. ‘A rumour in Leighford High usually takes a full thirty seconds to develop. No, Nurse …' He stood up and faced down a group of Year Seven girls who were quivering in unison behind the school nurse. ‘Girls, I know this is a very exciting start to the year for you, new school and all. I would like to assure you that the staff don't hurl themselves
downstairs for your amusement every day. And I have never knowingly leapt on Mrs Greenhow in her life. Now, could you please go back to your class? You're in the way.'

There was a minor bit of shoving and one girl popped out of the group like a cork and stood there with her hands twisting in front of her. ‘Umm … are you Mr Maxwell?'

The Great Man was brought up short. Of course he was. The child had been in the school for getting on for two hours and still didn't know? How odd. ‘Yes,' he said. ‘I am.'

‘You taught my gran,' she said, all smiles.

Maxwell's eyes nearly popped out of his head. ‘Your
gran
?' he spluttered. ‘How old do you think I am?'

‘Don't worry, Max,' muttered Sylvia from where she knelt at Sally's head, absently stroking her hair. ‘I'll explain.'

Maxwell looked down into Sally's face, always pale to go with her genuinely blonde hair, now so pale that it was almost green. ‘Gran?' he mouthed, and she smiled, but only slightly, so as not to jar her head.

‘Who was that?' she whispered.

‘A new bug. Glasses. Fringe. Female.'

‘That sounds like Paige.'

‘Page?'

‘Max, you're going to have to promise not to laugh or anything. I really hurt. All over, and your laugh is so catching.'

‘Yes, Max,' Sylvia chimed in. ‘You really mustn't laugh.'

‘Why should I laugh?' He spread his hands innocently out to the sides. ‘I'm the one who has been accused of teaching that child's gran. Move over, Sal, I should be lying down.'

‘Well, you did teach her. But her gran had Paige's mum when she was fourteen and it turns out it runs in the family.'

Maxwell did the sums in his head and grunted softly to himself. ‘Hmm. Right. Well, in that case, I'm surprised it doesn't happen more. Who is the lovely granny?'

‘Sophie Turner.'

Maxwell was quick as lightning. ‘Just as well that Paige has a different surname, then …' He saw their faces. ‘Same name? Oh, dear. How cruel.'

‘Max,' said Sally, as sharply as she dared. ‘You promised you wouldn't laugh.'

He was crushed. ‘I'm not laughing.'

‘You're laughing on the inside, Max, and that's what counts,' said Sylvia. She cocked her head on one side. ‘Is that a siren?'

And sure enough, it was. The green-clad paramedics were suddenly everywhere, checking Sally's vital signs and locking her head in a device which would have made Torquemada proud. They felt along Sally's gangly limbs and found the broken ankle which she could have identified from the first. That went into an inflatable splint and
then they were good to go. But before they carried her into the ambulance, a self-important Pansy in attendance, she grabbed Maxwell's hand. By now, the pain was ebbing as the morphine in the drip took hold.

‘Max,' she wheedled in a slurred sort of way. ‘I was doing a Getting to Know You, week after next. Can you do it?'

He squeezed her fingers lightly. He vaguely remembered that it was a good idea not to cross someone heavily sedated. Or was it drunk, carrying a meat cleaver? He could never get that right. ‘Of course, Sal. You just go off and get better.'

Her eyes widened. ‘You'll do it for me, Max? You're so wonderful.'

‘Can't argue there,' he chuckled. ‘Off you go,' and the stretcher was carried away.

Sylvia and Maxwell waved it off, rather fruitlessly they knew, as no one in the vehicle was watching, but somehow it seemed so churlish just to turn away. When they did turn back into the school, Sylvia patted his back and said, ‘She's right, you are wonderful.'

A small light went on in the back of Maxwell's head. He felt that he needed to check his facts. ‘The Getting to Know You week is that one where Year Seven are off timetable to mingle and mix, isn't it?' He looked down anxiously into Sylvia's eyes.

She snorted lightly. ‘Oops, Mr Maxwell,' she said. ‘I think that you should accompany me to my office,
where you may learn something to your advantage. I've got to fill in the Accident Book anyway.'

‘Sylv,' he dropped his voice to subterranean levels. He had been working on his Valentine Dyall, the actor who put the burnt umber into dark brown (although that was all so long ago, only Maxwell remembered him). ‘Tell me straight. What have I agreed to?'

She raised an eyebrow.

‘Oh, heavens to Betsy, I'm that flustered.' Vivien Leigh with just a tad of Frankie Howerd. ‘To what have I agreed?'

The nurse put her hands on her hips and faced him squarely. ‘I thought you had promised that you would read the e-memos this term?'

‘And I will. But today hardly counts.'

‘Max. Today is the most important day for that sort of thing, surely? It's when all the announcements go out. But in fact, this memo went out last term.'

‘Ah.' It was a strange noise, somewhere between a groan, a scream and an eldritch cry.

‘Remembered?'

‘“The Getting to Know You week will this year be off-site,”' he quoted as best he could, doing his Dalek impression. He tried a tentative smile. ‘So, that's days out, is it? Chessington World of Adventure? Brighton? London Eye? Trips of that nature?' He looked longingly at Sylvia. ‘Just nod. Please nod!'

‘Sorry, Max. I only nod when the answer is yes, not being of the Polynesian persuasion.'

He grabbed her arm, then relaxed his grip as he realised he was cutting off the blood supply. His voice was a strangled whisper. ‘It's a week on the Isle of Wight, isn't it?' he said.

‘Give the man a candy floss,' she said, shrugging him off. ‘Families welcome,' she added. ‘I'm coming. It will be fun. Bring Nole. He'll love it.'

‘Oh, yes,' Maxwell agreed. ‘He'll love it. His brand-new Headmistress will not be so keen, though, I expect. His mother will be furious. She's planning a week in somewhere exotic in October.'

‘Well, that will be nice, then.
Two
holidays.'

‘Sounds like a good idea in principle. Except that she only has one week left until the end of the year. Her holidays are not as generous as ours, as I am constantly reminded.'

Sylvia pursed her lips and shook her head, then patted the Head of Sixth Form on the arm. ‘Well, don't do it, then. Sally will understand.'

‘But I promised.'

‘But you didn't know,' she riposted.

‘But I should have known,' he parried in sixte.

‘Whose side are you on?' she asked. ‘I'm trying to talk you out of this.'

‘I know you are, Sylv,' he said, turning for the stairs. He stopped, with one foot on the lowest tread. ‘Have you read
Horton Hatches the Egg
lately?'

‘I can't say that I have.'

‘Seen the film,
Horton Hears a Who
?'

‘No.'

‘Well, I'm sure you know that Horton is an elephant, mocked and harassed by the Wickersham Brothers, who are blue gorillas.'

‘Ah!' The light dawned. ‘Dr Seuss. Is Nolan a fan?'

Maxwell looked confused. ‘Possibly. Are Dr Seuss books for children? But what I meant was I am that elephant.'

‘It was Sally who hit her head, wasn't it?' Sylvia asked the world at large.

Maxwell looked seriously at Sylvia. ‘We are all elephants in this context, Sylv, keeping the blue gorillas at bay. Horton is very loyal and his refrain when mocked for trying to hatch his egg is “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful one hundred per cent.” I promised Sally I would do her week, and do that week I shall.'

‘And why,' came Woman Policeman Carpenter-Maxwell's voice from the darkness, ‘are you quoting Horton at me?' She snapped on her bedside lamp.

‘Bright light, bright light,' Maxwell complained, hiding his head under the duvet. He had been perfecting his Mogwai voice for years and had recently found a new audience in Nolan. Metternich had long ago ceased to be impressed. He was somewhere out on the tiles now, butchering rodents.

Jacquie pulled the covers down and looked her husband in the eye. ‘There has been unremitting cuteness and consideration from you ever since I got home. Nice, clean, tucked-up child, a meal on a tray in front of
Mamma Mia,
a film you hate only second to
The Sound of Music.
And now, when you think I'm asleep or as near as makes no difference, you quote Dr Seuss at me. I'm a
detective, for God's sake. I have a nose for these things. What's going on?'

‘Can't a husband be cute with no reason?' he asked plaintively.

‘Of course a husband can,' she said, letting go of the duvet suddenly so that his hand flew up and he hit himself in the face.

‘Ow.'

‘You deserved that. Of course a husband can. It's just
you
that can't. At least, not without telling me why.'

‘I'm the elephant in the room?'

‘The moronic interrogative?' She was now even more suspicious. Maxwell was almost suicidal. That was twice in one day. ‘And management-speak as well.' She sat up and looked ready for business. ‘All right, Max. Now you have my full attention.'

This had not been his intention. He had indeed been trying all evening to get round both Jacquie and to the matter in hand. The trip to the Isle of Wight actually looked quite fun. The staff signed up already were from the more amenable section of the staffroom and were bringing families, so there would be opportunities to bunk off or, as the rubric had it, ‘have time away from the students by mutual arrangement'. The hotel was of the better kind, with a pool and gardens and … but there wasn't any way that he could make it sound like a week in Corfu in October.

‘I don't know how to begin.'

Her blood ran cold. Conversations which began this way were seldom happy ones. ‘Try,' she said, and even to her own ears her voice sounded pinched and high.

Maxwell turned his head and looked at her, his lovely wife, with bed hair and wide eyes. He punched her lightly on the leg. ‘No, it's not like that. It's not bad news. It's just that I really don't know how to begin.' He extended an arm and she slid down the bed and snuggled in.

‘Well, what is it? You know it always makes me suspicious when you quote Dr Seuss.'

‘Luke Luck likes lakes,' he remarked.

‘Good for him,' she muttered into his chest. ‘Out with it, Mr Maxwell, or things could get nasty.' It wasn't her best Clint Eastwood, but he'd walk over hot coals rather than tell her so.

‘Sally Greenhow fell downstairs today.'

Her head jerked up and he got another smack in the face.

‘Ow.'

‘Sorry. You didn't really deserve
that
one. Is she all right?'

His reply was a bit muffled as he nursed his nose with his free hand. ‘She is in hospital overnight, being checked for concussion and while her plaster dries out properly. She has a broken ankle but it wasn't displaced. Loads of bruises.'

‘How on earth did she do that? And can you
move your hand? You sound like Marlon Brando. So, what do you want to tell me?'

‘I'm gonna make you an offer you can't refuse.' The Don himself could not have done it better.

‘An offer of …?'

‘A lovely island holiday.'

She reached up and kissed his cheek. ‘Oh, Max, that's …' Pennies dropped and lights came on, simultaneously. ‘That's got nothing to do with Sally Greenhow bumping her head and breaking her ankle.'

He reached round and pinched her cheek, shaking it roguishly. ‘Nothing much gets past you, Woman Policeman, does it?'

‘No.' She shook her head. ‘Can you let go? Now
I
sound like Marlon Brando.'

‘Sorry.' He let go of her cheek, smoothed it just because he wanted to and tucked his hand back under the covers.

‘No, it doesn't. What I would like you to tell me is that Sally had a holiday booked in Corfu in October that she can't do with a broken ankle. So you, kindly, have taken over the booking.'

‘That would be nice,' he said, hopefully.

‘But, instead, you are going to tell me that in fact you are going to run her week on the Isle of Wight.'

He raised himself up on one elbow. ‘You're good,' he said, shaking his head. ‘My word, you're good. However did you work that one out?'

‘Low cunning.'

‘Well, clearly that, but how did you find out?'

She slid further down until she was completely hidden under the duvet and rolled it round herself, to protect her ticklish bits. Her voice was muffled, but clear. ‘I bumped into Sylv in Morrisons on my way home. She told me.' She spluttered as he made an attempt at the soft bit on the inside of her thigh. ‘She made me promise not to tell you until you had spoilt me all evening first.' She curled up into a tighter ball. ‘No, Max, no tickling. No. Look, you'll wake Nole. No. Stop it.'

Suddenly, he did stop and she peeped out from behind the quilt.

‘Don't you mind?' he asked.

She emerged fully and kissed the tip of his nose. ‘Of course I mind. No sun. Sort of sea, but we have that here. A hotel, but full of kids. But, it's a week more or less with you, Nole will love it and it is the week after next, not months away.'

He kissed her back. ‘I do love you, you know. You're a woman in a million.'

‘No,' she corrected him. ‘In a squillion. And don't think you've paid me back yet,' she turned over, pulling most of the quilt with her and turned out the light. ‘Because you haven't. Not by a long chalk.'

 

By mutual but unspoken consent, Maxwell and his good lady decided not to tell Nolan the good
news about his unexpected holiday until they had to. Before they could share it with him, they had to broach the subject with his new Headmistress, who made Snow White's stepmother look mild and fond of children. Maxwell had drawn the short straw. And lost at scissors-stone-paper. And lost at coin-tossing. He suggested they cut cards, but Jacquie was already halfway out of the door, with Nolan in tow.

‘Sorry, Max,' she called back up the stairs. ‘Best of three is best of three. No more chances. I'll make you an appointment for this afternoon after you finish. Best of luck.' And with a slam of the door, she was gone.

It wasn't that Maxwell was scared of Mrs Whatmough. She was only a Headmistress after all and Maxwell had eaten better men than her for breakfast. But she did have a moustache, something which Maxwell always found rather disconcerting on a woman, especially when she seemed to use wax not to diminish it but to accentuate its curled ends. She also had a cunning way with feng shui, so that her office somehow had, without overt artefacts or artwork, the look and feel of a dungeon, torturers for the use of. And bearing in mind that the oldest child in her care was eight, it did seem rather an expression of her personality, rather than an attempt at controlling the pupils in her school.

Maxwell gave himself a little shake and cleared
the breakfast table. Nolan was taking Proper School very seriously and the Coco Pop spillage was now quite minor. No need to get out the Hoover these days; a wet cloth and a bin bag would usually suffice. How quickly they seemed to grow up. A week on the Isle of Wight, behaving like kids, would do them all the world of good.

But every time he tried to immerse himself in household tasks, Mrs Whatmough's face loomed like some terrible gorgon from the suds in the sink, from the chocolaty smears on the tabletop, from the cat food detritus in Metternich's bowl – though to be fair the detritus was on the meagre side, so her features were rather sketchy. But sufficient unto the day was the Headmistress thereof, so it was a sunny Peter Maxwell who wheeled White Surrey down the path a few minutes later. The old velocipede wasn't what he once was, but then, which of us is, Maxwell pondered. If he'd had to take the flyover at near-impossible speeds every morning with just a hint of WD-40 on his working parts, how would he feel? Maxwell was in midleg swing, not something that could be interrupted without serious tendon-twanging these days, when he heard the thing he most dreaded.

‘Mr Maxwell?'

Could he ignore it? How would he feel if it turned out she was calling with the last breath in her body and he ignored her? Fine, probably. He prepared to swing again.

‘Mr Maxwell? Have you got a moment?'

Without turning his head, he answered. ‘Not so's you'd notice, Mrs Troubridge, no. Off to school, you know how it is.' Since Mrs Troubridge had last seen a school when that nice Mr Nickleby was her form tutor, that statement was probably pretty wide of the mark.

‘I only need a moment, Mr Maxwell.' She was beginning to sound testy. ‘I have someone I would love you to meet.' She sounded so excited, like an incompetent magician who had finally managed to produce a rabbit out of his hat, that Maxwell gave in. He was a kind man and his neighbour, though annoying and physically reminiscent of something from a Rider Haggard novel, was, when all was done and said, his neighbour. She and Nole got on like houses on fire, and even Metternich kept the number of dismembered voles left on her front step to a minimum, ever since the incident of which they no longer spoke. So, Maxwell turned to face her. And swallowed an involuntary shriek.

Mrs Troubridge was standing halfway down her path, her little marmoset-like features split in a happy grin. All four foot eleven of her was swelling with pride but she was still, as always, tiny. Behind her, in the doorway, like some living optical illusion, stood an almost identical person. But this person was not, like Miss Troubridge, Mrs Troubridge's previously long-lost, then found, then lost again sister, as like her as two peas in a pod.
No, this person was as like her as one pea in a pod and one simply enormous pea, growing on a giant's allotment. Everything else was the same. The grinning face, the fluffy hair, the pink dressing gown clutched tightly at chest and waist, so as not to inflame Maxwell's passions so early in the morning.

Maxwell rearranged his face into an amazed and welcoming smile. ‘Mrs Troubridge! A visitor; how lovely.'

‘Not just
a
visitor, Mr Maxwell,' she trilled. ‘This is my cousin Millie. She comes from the North, you know, but you mustn't mind that.' She came closer to Maxwell, and reached up slightly so she could whisper near his ear. ‘Miss Troubridge found her for me.'

Maxwell fought down the sentences which were gathering on his tongue, ready to leap into the air. ‘She must have been quite easy to find,' was the least offensive, but even so he preferred to settle for, ‘How kind. Had you been looking long?'

She risked releasing her dressing gown for long enough to cuff him lightly on the arm. ‘Mr Maxwell, you always make me laugh. Except about the Incident, of course.'

Maxwell tapped his nose wisely. ‘Not about the Incident, no. I do understand.'

Mrs Troubridge's voice became shriller. ‘I still wake up, sometimes,' she cried. ‘It never really leaves me.'

He decided to bring her back to earth. ‘Your visitor?' He gestured up the path. ‘Millie.'

The giant woman waved her fingers coquettishly.

‘Oh, yes, Millie.' Mrs Troubridge pulled herself together with a final quiver. ‘Miss Troubridge is compiling our family tree and she has had quite remarkable success.'

Maxwell the historian rose to the bait. ‘Having an unusual name like Troubridge must have helped her enormously,' he said.

‘Only
our
branch is Troubridge,' said Mrs Troubridge sternly. ‘There was just my sister and me and, of course,
Mr
Troubridge at the end. No,' she sighed. ‘If Miss Troubridge or I should die, then that will be the end of the line, I'm afraid.'

Maxwell was stunned by the hubris of the little woman. To assume that death was an optional extra showed extraordinary optimism. Or pessimism, depending on the point of view. His innate politeness reasserted itself. ‘I am remiss, Mrs Troubridge. How is Miss Troubridge, these days?'

‘Gadding,' snapped the little woman. ‘There's no other word for it. And since she became a platinum surfer, there's no stopping her. But putting pen to paper for those of us who are not so computer-oriented, nothing. But, no,' Mrs Troubridge returned to the thought before one. ‘Millie's surname is Muswell.'

‘Ah, like the Hill.'

Mrs Troubridge stepped back, amazed. ‘No,
Mr Maxwell. The name Muswell denotes a boggy or mossy place. Not a hill. You do surprise me, being a supposedly intelligent man.'

Doing his best to look fairly bright, Maxwell turned back to his bicycle. ‘I really must go, Mrs Troubridge,' he said. ‘I will be late for school, else. But perhaps you would like to bring Millie round for tea this afternoon? I'm sure Jacquie would love to meet her, and anyway we have a favour to ask you.'

The little face lit up. ‘Babysitting?'

‘In a way.' Maxwell had managed to swing his leg over the crossbar and was finally on his way. ‘We're going away and wondered if you would feed Metternich.'

As he swept away, up the slope and off to the left at the top of Columbine, he could still hear her plaintive cry. ‘But Mr Maxwell! What if there's another Incident?'

 

Leighford High School was looking slightly more battered on its second day of term. It was staggering, Maxwell had never ceased to think, how the work of six whole weeks for a posse of cleaners, builders and decorators could be completely undone in less than a day. The students of Leighford were no different from those of any other school, averaging them out and chopping off the ends of the graph in that cavalier way statisticians have. And yet he had never visited another school, college or indeed
an institution of any kind without remarking to himself how less dog-eared that place seemed compared to good old Leighford. He wondered if the hotel in the Isle of Wight was really quite ready for this influx. He wondered if they would hold him personally accountable. Whether he would have to do the washing-up to pay for all the broken bedside lamps, shower fitments, beds, windows and other sundries which he feared Year Seven would leave in their wake.

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