Read an Excerpt
M. J. Trow
The silence was almost deafening before the black car with heavily tinted windows purred up to the kerb. The driver jumped out and opened first a rear door and then the boot. He emptied the contents and dumped them unceremoniously on the grass, still damp from the rain of earlier in the night which was waiting for the summer sun before it could evaporate. The passengers, rudely awakened by the discreet and padded slam of the boot lid, tumbled out from the luxurious back seats and were still blinking on the path as the car sped away. One of them looked around, puzzled, feeling that something was missing but before he could put his loss into words, the car, having turned to go back to the town and then on into the countryside beyond, pulled in again and the rear door opened, silently, eerily, all by itself. The man looked in, then reached in, grasped something left on the back seat and pulled it out, depositing it with a grunt at his feet. The car pulled away again and soon it was just an array of brake lights and indicators at the top of the slight rise.
The houses all looked down with blank eyes at the little group huddled together on the path and they looked back, with eyes scarcely less blank. The woman hitched her child up higher on one shoulder and balanced his weight with her bag over the other. The man picked up their bags and the forgotten luggage from the car, which was now beginning to growl. The low, threatening noise began to rise in volume and voles and shrews for streets around raised questing whiskers to the sky. Memories are short in the world of vermin, but even these twenty generations on, they knew their enemy and the message flew by means of snickers and squeaks beyond human hearing, by messages embedded in the constant dribble of urine, spread through wainscoting and undergrowth.
'Metternich's back! Run! Hide!'
And they all knew they couldn't do both.CHAPTER 2
Jacquie Carpenter-Maxwell was still sleeping the sleep of the seriously jet-lagged with Nolan tucked snuggly into the curve of her body when her husband slipped out of the room. Still in his pyjamas, Maxwell crept up the stairs to the attic room, where his Light Brigade had been waiting for almost a year for his return, the half-finished Troop Sergeant Major John Linkon lying on his back beside his harness-less horse under a cloth, waiting for the last licks of paint that would make him almost live again. Maxwell picked up Lord Cardigan, sitting Ronald as patiently as ever. He had been finished now for years and he turned him to the window, checking for dust. There was none. Hector Gold, his other half of the exchange which had kept him away from Leighford, from Columbine and from his 54mm Brigade, had kept them pristine. He looked across the diorama and then gave them a second look. All was not quite as he had left it. Right at the very edge of the valley, almost off the table but in the direction of the Sapouné Heights, had his attic been big enough, was a new figure, standing, horseless, gazing at the men. Maxwell walked round to where the little man stood and crouched down to look him in the eye. He wasn't a soldier, he was a civilian, a battle-walker, a travelling gentleman, a schlachtenbummler as the Germans have it and he was the very image of Hector Gold, down to his blond hair and, to Maxwell's delight, a cheeky wink. Extending a careful finger, he patted the little man on the head. All the way across the Atlantic, he had worried about what he would find when he reached his house, his school, his own historians, his Sixth Form. His stomach had knotted from time to time and he had found it hard to concentrate on Monsters' University, although Nolan had insisted that he would be asking questions later. But now he knew that he had left everything in the right hands. He winked back at Hector Gold, TG par excellence and went downstairs to put on the kettle and restart his normal life.
Hector had even filled the fridge, although it did have a slightly transatlantic flavour, with a preponderance of maple syrup and some rather brightly coloured juice. But no doubt Nolan would greet them all with whoops of delight. A hot coffee steaming in his hand, he wandered into the sitting room and pulled back the curtains. They had gone straight to bed the night before, having let Metternich out to renew old acquaintance with small and vulnerable creatures of the night and to rout the army of interlopers who would doubtless have invaded his territory during his absence. The room was still dark. He had no idea what time it was, but the light in the attic had seemed to him to suggest around about seven - he had lost the knack, temporarily, of telling the time from the sky. In Los Angeles, the time was night or smog - it was hard to be more accurate.
He walked around the back of the sofa and set his coffee down on the table, then threw himself back into the embrace of his favourite chair. He closed his eyes and leaned back with a sigh as the cushions moulded themselves to his contours as though he had never been away. Then, he opened his eyes and looked ahead with a smile still lingering on his lips.
Then he screamed. He would say later that it was more of a manly shout, but it was definitely a scream, as everyone in the house at the time would attest. He screamed because stretched out on the sofa, her head pillowed on a cushion, was an old lady, hair tidily held in a net, a small bubble of saliva growing and diminishing at the corner of her mouth with every breath. He had hardly time to register that fact before she was screaming too. Struggling upright, she clutched the blanket she was sleeping under up to her chin and stared with wild eyes about her.
'Mrs Troubridge!' Maxwell felt his heart lurch back into a more normal rhythm. 'What ...?' He almost used the clichn he avoided on pain of death, then couldn't help himself after all. 'What are you doing here?'
'Careful, Max,' said a voice to his left. 'She'll have to kill you now.' Jacquie stood there, in rumpled pyjamas, the pillow still printed on one cheek and her hair on end. 'Mrs Troubridge. Have you been there all night? We had no idea.' She turned to her husband. 'Max. A cup of tea for Mrs Troubridge.' Maxwell's heart descended from his mouth. Never mind all night; he was afraid she'd been there all year.
The old lady still sat there wide-eyed and clutching her blanket, despite the fact that she was fully clothed beneath it. 'Jacquie,' she said, focussing her eyes one by one. 'I was expecting you last night, dear. I thought it would be nice to be here to welcome you, to let you know everything was all right while you were away, but I ...' she looked down at the drool marks on the cushion and hurriedly turned it over, '... I must have dropped off for a minute.'
'We got in last night, but there was a mix-up with the taxi from the airport. We had a chauffeur-driven car in the end, because it was the taxi-firm's fault, but it took a while to arrange. As it was, the driver nearly drove off with Metternich.'
Mrs Troubridge's face clouded over. She and Metternich had a history which had not always been a happy one and she had half-hoped that the animal might have been in quarantine for at least a while; or, better still, gone feral in the Rockies. She had enjoyed her time with no vole-innards on her doormat. 'Nolan is well,' she stated. Her boy – now him she had missed.
'Nolan is blooming,' Jacquie said. 'He sounds a bit ... American at times, Mrs Troubridge. But that will wear off soon enough, I expect.'
'By the end of the week, or he's off to the orphanage.' Maxwell gave a coffee to his wife and a tea to Mrs Troubridge, made in a pot, with the requisite number of spoonsful of loose tea. Jetlag was no excuse for making a bad cup of tea and he knew Mrs Troubridge would take no prisoners. There were after all, standards.
'Max has been fighting a rather rearguard action,' Jacquie told her neighbour. 'It started with a Cookie Box but he soon knew that wouldn't work.'
'A cookie box?' Mrs Troubridge was confused. She knew Mr Maxwell was a little unusual, but surely he wouldn't refuse his child food.
'It worked like a swearbox,' the instigator of the system explained. 'Every time Nole used an American word where an English one would do perfectly well, he had to put ten cents in the Cookie Box. It came out of his pocket money, but within a week he already owed us for the next two months, so we stopped doing it.'
'And anyway,' Jacquie took up the tale, 'he had to mix with all the other children, so it wasn't fair on him. And now he's back, Mrs Whatmough will soon knock him back into shape. He sounds quite cute, as a matter of fact.'
As if on cue, a wail came down the stairs. 'Mom! I mean, Mummy! '
'Ah, the voice of the turde is heard in the land,' Maxwell said. 'Ladies, after you ...'
But Mrs Troubridge, showing a rare and remarkable turn of speed, was already through the door and heading for the stairs.
That morning went by in a haze of phone calls and emails. Jacquie still had three weeks left before she had to report for duty at the Nick, but Henry Hall had left a message on the answerphone nonetheless. It didn't actually spell out that the DCI would like to see her sooner; the catalogue of illness and disaster that had apparently befallen every third person in or out of uniform was only so that she knew how everyone was, of course. She wasn't to worry about a thing - she must enjoy her next three weeks; oh yes, please don't even think of coming in to work. She rang back and left a message on his answerphone, promising to drop by on Monday. The emails were largely from the people they had just left, hoping they had got home okay, not to be strangers; many people found they had business trips coming up. Was Leighford near London at all? It's a village somewhere, isn't it? They would love to drop by. Jacquie sighed as she thought of the hotel she seemed to be opening, but with only a few exceptions, everyone would be welcome. There were even some emails from the teachers at the school Maxwell had honoured with his presence. They all began in the same way; - 'Hi Jacquie, can you let Max know I've been in touch ...' His technophobia had survived its sojourn Stateside and was still alive and well. As he kept telling them, 'If it was good enough for Edison ...' She wouldn't be the one to blow his cover, and so she replied in the third person, as though by dictation.
Maxwell was downstairs in the kitchen, starting on the washing. He was not New in the sense of Man but he knew his limitations and sticking on a load of washing was a simple way of doing his bit. Nolan had been clamped to the ironing-board bosom of Mrs Troubridge since, and partly during, breakfast, but he had now disappeared with the loyal Plocker, with whom he had had a regular Skype call every Sunday while they had been away. Plocker had not asked for a present, nor expected one; getting Nolan back had been enough for him. Nevertheless, the bag of variously highly coloured American sweets had been gratefully received and Maxwell sent a silent apology to Mrs Plocker, who would have to deal with two little boys high on sugar and e-numbers for the rest of the day and halfway through the night.
As he sorted the loads into coloureds and whites, he let his mind wander and soon his living phantasm was strolling down the familiar corridors, peering round doors, checking that all was well with his world. Judging by the house, which was actually rather cleaner than when the Maxwell family had left it, Hector did not like chaos in any part of his life, so he had no fears for the welfare of his historians. His Sixth Form he knew would have flourished in the maternal care of Helen Maitland, the bulwark the kids called The Fridge. Leighford High was like a living thing, though, and if one part was not functioning, then there was a chance that the whole thing might crash and burn. He had heard of the depredations of Mr Gove, but didn't worry overmuch about that – he had seen things come, he had seen things go; O levels, CSE, GCSE, A2, AS, CPVE, CFEE, the Baccalaureate; when it was all said and done, an exam was an exam and an able student an able student. No, what he worded about was what Legs Diamond might have got away with while he had no one to curb his excesses with a mixture of contempt and mulish refusal to comply. There would be Elf and Safety notices everywhere; decaffeinated coffee in every machine; an iPad in every sweaty fist, text-speak the norm in every essay. Wikipedia quotes would have taken over. He felt a cold sweat run down his spine and he straightened up from his laundry pile. Shoving the whites into the drum, with the obligatory red sock for good measure, he added the gel, twirled some dials and pressed the button. Then he hot-footed it to the sitting room and snatched up the phone, punching in numbers he hadn't used for many months but yet came back to him without a second thought.
'Hello. Helen, Max here.'
'Maxi' He could hear the grin on her face. 'I didn't think you were back just yet.'
'Back in body, dear heart. My head is still on a pillow somewhere in Los Angeles. We'll get back together soon, I hope.'
'How are Jacquie and Nolan?'
'I gather that small boys don't do jet lag. He is off with his mate on a sleepover. Jacquie is catching up on emails, calls, you know how it is. How are you?'
'We're fine and before you ask me, so is the Sixth Form. We only had one pregnancy ... oh, I think you knew about that before you went
'No, in that case, two pregnancies, I suppose I should say. The results look as if they will be up this year - talking of which, Paul and Hector got on like houses on fire and the historians are all doing well. It was like having you around, but less trouble.' Her chuckle warmed his ear. 'You have missed some great weather - apparently we are in for an Indian summer, so you won't feel it too badly.'
'My dear woman, I have never been so cold in my life as I have been for the past seven months. Air conditioning has kept us in Arctic temperatures. It was like the Donner party all over again. I'd eaten Nole's leg before I realised what was happening. The only time the real temperature kicks in in California is during the quick dash to the car and from the car at school or at the shops.'
'Wash your mouth out, Mrs Maitland. I have managed to retrain half of one of America's largest cities to use correct vocabulary – I don't want to have to start again with you. I did inform them that the only Mall in the world was the Pall variety that leads directly to the Palace.'
'The staff at Leighford are all expecting you to come back with an American accent. I should qualify that,' she said hurriedly, as his indrawn breath threatened retribution. 'The younger staff. Hector has been telling them how his colleagues have been training you in the finer points of Yank Speak. The rest of us know that you will have been training them on how to Talk Proper.'
'You betchya,' Maxwell drawled, much after Cletus Spuckler from The Simpsons.
Helen laughed. 'I hope you did that deliberately, Max,' she said. 'I have fifty pee riding on you.'
'Fifty pee!' he said, horrified. 'Fifty pee! Surely you have more confidence in me than that? Oh ye of little faith.'
'They capped the bet,' she said. 'As always, you have kept everyone guessing! But you rang me for a reason, I would imagine. You must have lots to do.'
'Most of the luggage isn't here yet. We sent it on by carrier; I'm not quite sure how we managed to leave with a suitcase each and now need DHL to get us back, but apparently there was a lot of stuff we couldn't leave behind. Nolan's scooter, for example.'
'He's that age, Max. He'll be cycling around behind you soon, you just wait.'
'So, to answer your question, there isn't a lot to do. We managed to dislodge Mrs Troubridge eventually. Hector seems to have actually trained Mrs B to clean, so the place is like a new pin.'
'Hector has been doing his own cleaning, I understand,' Helen said.
'Mrs B ...'
'Mrs B is in what you would doubtless call rude health,' Helen reassured him. 'She didn't hold with cleaning for foreigners, especially them Yanks wot got her auntie into trouble in the War and then left her holding the baby. Them Yanks don't care, apparently. No woman's safe with them, even when they look like they couldn't knock the skin of a rice pudding, like that Mr Gold. Her family wouldn't have her in the house along of him. It wasn't right.' Helen Maitland couldn't do an impeccable Mrs B like Maxwell could, but it was near enough, although the spectacle did make him feel slightly nauseous.