Read an Excerpt
M. J. Trow
Friday afternoon. Peter Maxwell happily hummed his own version of the Mamas and Papas song as he strolled along his empty mezzanine corridor to his office. Life was good, generally speaking and not just because Leighford High School had become that most perfect of educational premises; one empty of squalling, squawking, whingeing kids, although that was indeed a bonus. No. It was a Friday and not just any Friday. It was the Friday before half term and his Jacquie, his lovely wife, was due a long weekend. His equally lovely but in a very different way son Nolan was on a playdate with his bestest friend in the whole world, Plocker, and even Metternich the cat had moderated his vole-innard leavings in recent days. Mrs Troubridge of the next-door persuasion had settled down into her usual winter torpor some months before and, lizard-like, only looked out occasionally to test the temperature which was happily not yet to her liking. So, generally, life was good.
Before he pushed open the door of his office, Maxwell paused, holding his breath. Silence. Perfect.
He listened closer and he could, in fact, just discern the tiny sounds in the office next door, mouse-like scrabblings made by that quintessentially unmouselike woman, his trusty assistant, Helen Maitland. For someone who would never see fourteen stone again, Helen was a very quiet mover and it was only someone with Maxwell's honed faculties who would know she was there at all. But that she was was a constant comfort. Smiling to himself and almost smelling the coffee which was their end of week ritual, he turned the handle and pushed on the door.
Friday afternoon. Helen Maitland smiled to herself and reached into her bag for the special beans, ground only that morning, which she brought in every Friday. Maxwell loved the blend and it was not for her to tell him that their special piquancy came from having passed through a civet cat before they passed through her grinder. He was a gentleman as well as a scholar, so she didn't fear spitting or anything of that nature, but even so; Friday afternoons were their special time and if it meant not mentioning civet innards, then it was a price she was prepared to pay. As it was half term, there would also be biscuits.
Maxwell didn't turn on the light, although by now it was very much of the crepuscular persuasion in his office. The posters glowed softly from the walls, where Jean Harlow, the 't' forever silent, looked anything but reckless in the film of the same name. Below her and slightly to the left (her favourite position, the more risqué of the bios contended) Gary Cooper looked ridiculous in a solar topee, for all he was supposed to be a Bengal Lancer; and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were tripping the light fandango in Top Hat. Maxwell smiled; he never tired of telling Helen, and others of the female gender, to remember that whatever Ginger did, poor old Fred had to do it forwards and without high heels.
He rummaged in his briefcase and brought out a box of biscuits, Helen's favourite chocolate gingers, quite literally, if the label were to be believed, the very finest that Messrs Tesco could provide. He wrestled briefly with the packaging but that was all part of the ritual. He even put them on a plate, in a rather pleasing half-moon shape and looked at his handiwork proudly. Eat your heart out, Tracy Emin.
Cocking a practiced ear, he could just hear the kettle coming to the not-quite-boil through the wall. Helen was a stickler for water temperature when it came to their Friday coffee. He sat idly on the back of his row of chairs which faced the window and the pearl of the late February afternoon, holding as it did the promise of spring. In his younger days, he had had a habit much criticised by Sylvia Matthews, school nurse and guardian of his back, of letting himself roll back onto the seats and lie prone, considering life and its ups and downs. He smiled again to himself.
Why not? After all, you're only a mad old buffer once.
Helen poured a drop of hot water onto the perfectly ground coffee, to moisten it and let it breathe. She didn't care how much she was laughed at for her care over her brew. She was a Geisha manqué, in need of the little rules and regulations that governed her life. She made coffee every day of the week, but none with the care she lavished on this. She pictured Maxwell next door wrestling with the glue on the flap of the box that held her ginger biscuits. She knew he was more of a Hob Nob man himself, but rules were rules. And where would we be without them? Maxwell always answered that question with one word. 'France.' But even that was part of what hedged her world. She didn't like surprises, although having worked with Maxwell for so long, she should certainly be inured to them by now.
Closing his eyes and with a little chuckle, Maxwell let go of the back of the chairs and let himself roll back.
As she heard the scream, Helen Maitland let the coffee pot crash into the sink. She had never heard anything so blood-curdling in all her life, and that was saying something. She had worked at Leighford for long enough to have heard it all. Her heart in her mouth, she dashed next door, afraid of what she might find. Maxwell was at such a funny age.
It was hard at first to make out what was happening. There was no light, except for the orange sodium glow that was joining the dusk through the window. Against the wide, uncurtained pane the silhouettes of two men showed, black against the sky. One had wild hair, the other was hunched, at bay.
'For all that's holy, Headmaster,' the wild-haired one was saying in trembling tones. 'I could have crushed you. What on earth were you doing lying down in my office?'
It was clearly English and yet Helen Maitland was having difficulty grasping the meaning.
'You've dislocated my elbow, Max, I swear.' The mild and flat tones of Legs Diamond seemed out of place here. He didn't come to you. You went to him. It was the way of the world, if the world was Leighford High.
'Rubbish!' The Head of Sixth Form was brooking no hypochondria. He needed to know what the hell was going on. 'I ask again, what were you doing?'
The Head didn't answer, but carried on rubbing his elbow, in what Maxwell considered to be a rather threatening and theatrical manner.
Maxwell saw Helen for the first time and decided that explanations were in order. 'I jumped on the Headmaster, Helen,' he said, with an airy wave of his hand. 'I think you should perhaps bring another cup.' If truth were told, Peter Maxwell had been getting the jump on Legs Diamond for years, but this was somehow different.
James Diamond turned hollow eyes on the Assistant Head of Sixth Form. 'Coffee?' he asked quietly.
'Kopi luwak,' Helen said; she didn't know why.
The head teacher was surprised. He somehow didn't have Maxwell down for someone who would like something crapped out by a cat; Metternich could have borne that out, had he been asked. 'Lovely,' he said. 'I need something, that's for sure.'
Maxwell relented. 'You seem somewhat distrait, Headmaster,' he said and ushered him back to the chairs they had so inelegantly vacated moments before.
With only a small flinch, the man sat down. 'I am,' he said. 'I have just had a meeting with the Chairman of the Governors.'
Calling the weasely little git to mind, Maxwell could see that it probably had not been marvellous, but Diamond had never resorted to lying in the dark in his office following such meetings before. There seemed no coherent answer to give, so he just cocked his head and gave Diamond an encouraging smile, rather wasted in the by now almost completely dark room.
'You don't understand, Max,' the head said. 'It was the news I had been dreading.'
'Don't tell me we are being Ofsteded again!' Helen was aghast.
Maxwell and his assistant thought for a moment. What could be worse?
'We're going to be an Academy!' The head shut his mouth with a snap and let his head fall forward on his chest.
Maxwell and Maitland exchanged glances.
'So, remind me again why that would be a bad thing.' DI Jacquie Carpenter-Maxwell spoke from behind the fridge door as she rummaged for something to nibble.
'Sorry?' Her husband raised an eyebrow.
'Academy status. Why is it such a bad thing?' She emerged brandishing a cold sausage. 'I though there were all kinds of financial inducements involved.'
'I think that's what a lot of people think,' Maxwell said, taking the sausage out of her hand and biting it in half. 'But that isn't actually the case. They still get funding from the government, just not filtered through the local authority. The pots of money legend is just a misunderstanding about the sponsorship thing – that won't be happening to Leighford anyway, because the school has chosen to become an Academy rather than have it forced upon them, so it won't need a sponsor. So at least we won't be known as ... oh, I don't know ... the Furniture Village Academy of Leighford or the Marks and Spencer Academy.'
Jacquie snatched back her half-sausage and ate it in two quick bites. 'So, what's the problem?' she asked, somewhat indistinctly.
'There may not be one,' he conceded, 'although on the current showing I can't see it ending well. For a start, everything was done rather under the table, with a few governors whispering in corners and then coming out with pretty much a fait accompli, excuse my French.'
Jacquie nodded her acceptance of his lapse into the dreaded language and shrugged a shoulder. 'It might all work out, then.'
'Legs is in a bit of a state,' Maxwell remarked.
'You did jump on him,' Jacquie pointed out, quite reasonably.
Maxwell flapped a dismissive hand. 'I mean, he was in a state well before I jumped on him, though I grant you that probably didn't help. The trouble is, the man is an idiot. He's always been the same, he bottles things up until they are much worse than they need be. The Chair of Governors had been to see him weeks before. He could have put it to the staff then and that would have given him some ammunition.'
'They'll be against it, you think?'
'It's always hard to tell which way the combined staff cat will jump; beg pardon, Count.' The enormous black and white beast was curled up on a chair which was pushed under the table, but somehow his presence still filled the room, along with his rumbling snore. 'Legs has the half term to stew over it, which means that when we go in afterwards, he will be all up in the air, all squawk and ruffled feathers so by the end of the meeting nobody will be happy.'
Jacquie sat down at the table, carefully avoiding using the cat's chair. She still had the scars to show for the last time she had made that mistake and usually Metternich avoided causing damage to the woman who bought his favourite food. 'The trouble with you, Max,' she said, fondly, levering a piece of left over sausage out of a back tooth with her tongue, 'is that you know that place far too well. It makes you meet trouble halfway.'
'Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once. Weasel words, madam – look what happened to poor old Julius, after all.' He lapsed into an impeccable Kenneth Williams, 'Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me.'
'I still think it will all be fine. Different name, same school building, same pupils, same staff ...'
'But not the same head, probably.' Maxwell looked solemn. 'I've almost finished training Legs – it seems a shame to close the experiment before it's complete.'
'I had no idea.' Jacquie was surprised – the senior management team at Leighford had had its ups and downs, its arrests, suspensions, its deaths even, but she had never considered a world without Legs.
'Well, it's not certain, of course. Some Academies do go forward with the same head. That one, Thing, you know ...'
Jacquie shook her head. Thing could mean so much.
'Thing! That school in ...' Maxwell gave up. 'There, anyway, they kept the head for one term and then turfed him out. Replaced him with some so-called Super-Head who didn't really manage to do anything except alienate the staff, piss off the parents and generally lay waste. I don't think poor old Legs stands a cat in hell's chance.'
Jacquie laughed. 'Again, the cat metaphor. You really are dicing with death today.'
'That's true,' Maxwell agreed, pushing back his chair. 'Come on, let's go and watch some totally rubbish television, light the fire, pour out something alcoholic and forget about Leighford High School until week Monday.'
Jacquie stood up and came round the table to give him a hug. 'Really? Is that actually possible?'
He chuckled and kissed the top of her head. 'No,' he said, 'but we can put it in the box, like good old Schrodinger and see how it likes them apples.'
'If it's anything like the Count,' Jacquie said, 'it would prefer fish fillets in gravy, hold the mayo.'
Under his table, curled on his throne, the cat agreed with a throaty rumble and settled back into his dreams of vole au vent as far as the eye could see.
The television was, as predicted, rubbish. For some reason that Maxwell had never managed to fathom, early evening viewing – and, had he but known it, morning and afternoon as well – consisted of semi-famous people doing things for which they had no talent. Why anyone would want to watch a dancer making a cake, or a chef dancing for that matter, was just something that made the Head of Sixth Form's head whirl. And yet, here they sprawled, watching anyway. Maxwell gestured with a languid hand.
'Tell me who he is, again?'
Jacquie looked up. She had given up and was reading the paper. 'Who?'
'Him. The one with the shaved head.'
She peered, watching the glacier-slow action on the screen. 'There are three with shaved heads,' she pointed out, reasonably enough.
Maxwell looked dubious. 'Really? I thought it was all the same person. They certainly seem very alike. Are you sure?'
Jacquie folded the paper and pointed. 'Yes, look, he ...' and she waited until her quarry's face filled the screen. 'He's that footballer, you know the one, he was married to that singer. That singer you like.'
'I don't like any singers, do I?'
She smiled at him. 'No, not really. Not since Gene Pitney.'
Maxwell nodded. 'Lovely girl,' he muttered, reminiscently.
Jacquie ignored him. 'But you don't mind her. And the other one, the one with the tattoos, he is ... do you know, I don't know quite who he is, but he's on the telly a lot. And the other is the presenter.'
Maxwell blinked slowly once or twice, like something that had just unaccountably found itself on a primeval beach instead of in the soup of the same name. Without another word, he extended his remote arm and clicked, decisively.
Jacquie smiled again and, shaking out the paper, continued to read.
'It's odd that no one has been in touch,' Maxwell said, a tad plaintively.
'About what?' Jacquie didn't put the paper down this time. She couldn't claim to be fascinated by the article she was reading, but she could see that this evening was going to be a long one and she was holding out as long as she could. There was a silence, which dragged on for what seemed like hours. She slowly lowered the paper to find, as expected, her husband's face only inches from hers.
'You know what,' he said, in sepulchral tones.
She poked him on the end of the nose and he stood up. 'I can see you won't be happy until we have picked this thing to bits,' she said. 'I'm just amazed you have taken this long to come out with it.' She looked around him to the clock on the mantelpiece. 'Never mind, not long to go now.'
'Until what?' he asked, perplexed.
'Until Sylv gets here with the chips, Helen with the wine.'
Maxwell looked at her, amazed, proud and in love in equal measure. 'You are amazing,' he said. Then his brow creased. People had homes to go to, after all. Husbands. Stuff like that. 'What about ...?'
'Don't you worry about them,' she said, slipping her feet into her shoes. 'We're all going out for a drink while you three put the world to rights.' She stood up just as the bell pealed below. She kissed him on the forehead. 'I'll let them in on my way out. If work rings, tell them to try me on my mobile. If mother rings ...' she flapped a hand, '... tell her I'm at work, or dead or something.'
'Any preference?' Maxwell stuffed the paper behind a cushion, his one concession towards tidying up.