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Authors: M.J. Trow

Maxwell's Chain

BOOK: Maxwell's Chain
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Maxwell’s Chain

M.J. T
ROW

It wasn’t often that a night was so perfect. The water scarcely moved in the light breeze off the sea, bringing with it a promise of an early Spring. The moon was high and orange and its twin swung lazily below it, reflected in the waves. There was scarcely a sound, just a whisper from the damp, cold sand beneath the photographer’s feet as he moved slightly to balance while he framed the view. If it had not been for the camera in his hands, he would have rubbed them together. He knew a winning view when he saw one and this one had ‘Leighford Photographer of the Year’ written all over it.

Letting his breath out slowly, he squeezed the shutter and captured the magic in the box. A few more for luck and he could get back home to a warm house, warm drink, warm wife. What could be nicer?

He slid a little down the dune side, feeling the
sharp, dead, whippy grass brush his trousers. He stowed the camera away. Yes, it was a little outdated and clumsy, but he had no time for digital. He loved the slow thrill of the emerging image in the tray in his darkroom. His wife still called it the bathroom, but it hadn’t seen anyone bathing for years. And so they showered downstairs.

He allowed himself a controlled slide to the foot of the dune and then made his way back to his car. The moonlight was plenty to see by when the high, wispy clouds had cleared, although he stumbled once or twice, misjudging the angle of the ground, pale beneath him. He grumbled away to himself about the things that people left lying about; this looked like a scarf, for example, and his logical, developer’s mind told him that if it was cold enough for a scarf, it was too cold for the beach. As if to prove it, the wind whipped from nowhere, slicing through his anorak and taking his breath for a moment. The things he did for an award! He picked the scarf up and stowed it in his bag to dispose of later. An imaginary Little Old Lady With A Bad Leg Walking Her Dog rose up in his mind. Mustn’t let her trip up. She might break a hip. Die of exposure. It would all be his fault. And a long time ago, he had learnt at Sunday school that these things mattered. If Bill Lunt had
a failing, it was that he always saw the fly, never the ointment. That was something else they’d instilled into him at Sunday school. Robert Raikes had a lot to answer for.

He got into his car, alone in the car park now that it was dark, but not quite dark enough for lovers, and drove away.

Back on the dunes, where the spur called the Shingle rose to the cliffs near Dead Man’s Point, nearly in the sea, the deed was done. The mouth, nose, lungs had filled with swift moving sand. The hands had ceased to clutch, the legs to kick. The dune had ceased to become a battleground, however
one-sided
. It was a grave. It was a crime scene waiting to be discovered, if the sea didn’t get there first.

Emma Lunt was a patient woman. She endured Bill’s obsession because it could well have been worse. He might have collected illegal birds’ eggs or been a crypto-Nazi or a member of Opus Dei. His shop in the High Street did well. If he didn’t do digital, there were plenty of people who did. And, happily for their wages bill, most of those people were school leavers. In other words, they came cheap, despite the curse of the minimum wage. So the sales of middle of the range cameras,
the printing of middle of the road holiday photos, the taking of middle-aged family portraits all kept Lunt Photographic happily in the black. The winter was a lean time of course, but the days of beach photographers leaping up to curmudgeonly couples and frosty families as they trudged along the
rain-lashed
sea front in August, demanding money with menaces, had long gone. They ended, in fact, in 1964. And if Bill’s enthusiasm for snapping Emma in unlikely poses had waned…well, enough of that, thought Emma, was certainly enough. She’d never really liked it.

She turned her head at the sound of his key in the door.

‘In here,’ she called, from her curled up seat on the sofa, draped in rows of pearl and plain like a latter-day Madame Dafarge, peoples’ heads bouncing squelchily around her.

‘Just going up to…’ his voice petered out and the one step up the stairs to the darkroom was retraced into the lounge. ‘Hello, dear,’ he smiled, head round the door. It was always a good idea to at least pretend that you were going to spend the evening with the wife. He was still wearing his woolie hat and his ears were crimson.

‘No,’ she said, completing his thought. ‘No, you are not just going up to develop what you have just
taken. What you are going to do is spend a while with me. Let’s talk about our day, why not?’ She patted the seat next to her, sweeping the knitting aside and waited expectantly.

He sat down gingerly on the edge of the cushion, looking not unlike a rabbit caught in the headlights, smiling to hide the vacant space where a conversation ought to be taking shape and tugged off the hat. ‘Ermm, the moon was lovely. Over the water. I’ve taken a good few shots. Should be up for the Photographer of the Year, no problem.’

She sighed. Photo chat was better than no chat at all. ‘See anyone else down there? On the beach?’

‘Not a soul. A bit parky, as a matter of fact. Not as mild as the weather forecasters make it sound.’

She chuckled. ‘It
is
February,’ she reminded him. ‘What was that song? “John Ketley, he’s a weatherman. And so is Michael Fish”? I still think Fahrenheit sounds warmer than Celsius.’

‘You’re showing your age,’ he wagged a finger. ‘Someone else thought it was chilly, though. They dropped a scarf. I’ve got it here, somewhere.’ He rummaged in his bag.

‘Why ever did you bring that old thing back with you?’ she said, wrinkling her nose in disgust as a rather tatty scarf, grubby, full of holes and rather redolent of dog emerged from amongst his cameras.
It wasn’t a patch on her handiwork.

He looked at it in dismay. It really was rather horrible in the harsh light of his lounge. He saw something jump off it, nearly mentioned the fact and then thought better of it.

‘It didn’t look quite so nasty in the moonlight,’ he said. ‘Anyway, I thought perhaps someone might trip on it and I didn’t want that on my conscience.’

Emma smiled at him, grateful that he hadn’t brought the used condoms and Asda trolleys home as well. ‘You soft old thing,’ she smiled. ‘Take it out to the bin. It’s probably got a million fleas in it.’

One million, minus one, thought Bill Lunt grimly. But there was no hope of finding that one now – the Franz von Werra of the flea world. Holding the scarf at arm’s length between finger and thumb, he went through the kitchen and dropped it in the bin in the utility room. He was washing his hands when she came up behind him.

‘Not often I catch you at the sink,’ she said, circling her arms round his waist. ‘In fact, not often I catch you in the kitchen.’

He felt a bit of a sinking feeling coming on.

‘So, since you’re here, why don’t we open a bottle, rustle up a bit of supper and sit down like grown-ups for once?’

‘I’ve got some…’

‘Not going to mention developing, I hope,’ she said, tightening her grip in something resembling the Heimlich manoeuvre.

‘No, no, not at all,’ he said, letting his breath out in what he hoped was a silent sigh.

‘Good. What have you got some of, then?’

This woman was tenacious, you had to give her that. ‘Some planning. Some planning to do for the Leighford High School photos tomorrow. I’ve got a new idea for this year. I got it off the telly.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Buddy pictures. It’s big in America, for the graduations, you know. Groups of friends together, not just tutor groups and things. Subject groups. Teams. That sort of thing. They didn’t do that sort of thing when you were there, did they?’

‘Have you asked Peter Maxwell?’ she whispered in his ear.

‘No. I’m sure he’ll not be too bothered.’ Bill Lunt screwed round in his wife’s embrace. He needed to see her expression.

She laughed, just one, sharp bark of a laugh. ‘American idea? Peter Maxwell? Not too bothered? Are you insane?’

Emma Lunt, née Watson, was a founder member of the Old Leighford Highenas. She had
a pretty good idea of what Peter Maxwell would think of buddy pictures. And, as it turned out, she was right.

‘Buddy?’ Peter Maxwell fixed the unfortunate photographer with a gimlet stare. And he may have turned a shade paler. ‘Pictures? Am I mistaken, Bill, or does this have a ring of the good ol’ US of A about it?’

Bill Lunt hadn’t seen Peter Maxwell for the best part of a year. They kept an annual vigil, those two. Every January, come hell or high water-rates, the Head of Sixth Form at Leighford High School would ring Lunt Photographic in the High Street and ask to talk to Mr William Lunt, prop. If Emma answered, she’d go all schoolgirly again, just like she did all those years ago when Mr Maxwell explained about the South Sea Bubble and what you do when it bursts. If Bill answered, it was more to the point.

‘Usual, Bill, please, your best daguerreotype of My Own, standing patiently in serried ranks as a permanent sepia reminder of the Best Years of Their Lives, whether they appreciate it or not.’ Click. Burr.

That morning, a little before Valentine’s Day, the man the kids had called Mad Max for half a generation looked madder than ever. He stood foursquare on what, in a real school, would have been the First
Eleven Square; in fact, a little to the north-east of where Jade Minchinhampton habitually left her cheese sandwich leftovers. The brisk wind rattled through the barbed wire of his hair and his eyes narrowed as he looked at the photographer. Behind him stood the flat-roofed, red-brick monstrosity that had sent the architects’ doyen Nicholas Pevsner to an early grave and that still saw furious complaints fluttering out of Clarence House on a regular basis. In the mornings, when the rain came from the east, a third of the classrooms were unusable. By the afternoon, global warming had depopulated another third. And throughout the winter, Mondays were strictly gloves-and-scarf days on account of the total lack of central heating.

‘Ooh,’ Bill Lunt tried his level best to sound doubtful. ‘Ooh, it might, you know, be a bit American, now you come to mention it.’ He mouthed the words silently, as if the taste of them might give it away. ‘Hmm, not sure. Anyway, what do you think?’

‘I think it sounds like rubbish, Bill, if you don’t mind my saying so. The Americans have given us Spiritualism, chewing-gum, Coca-Cola, George W Bush and the moronic interrogative, although those last two might just be one and the same. According to them, they also gave us some help in two world wars, although the jury’s still out on that one. As for friendship groups, these kids are friends with each
other for at best a microsecond. If it lasts any longer than that it is because one of them has something on the other. If they want pictures of each other they take them with their mobile phones, constantly and at every possible opportunity. Usually in Maths, where the staff seem to have only a fleeting relationship with discipline.’

‘So…?’

‘So?’

‘So…do you want me to do the buddy pictures?’

‘Bill, are you still married to the beautiful Emma?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did you tell her you were planning buddy pictures?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did you ask her what I might think?’

‘Erm…yes.’

‘So, do I want you to do the buddy pictures?’

Bill sighed and hefted his camera bag higher onto his shoulder.

‘No. No, you don’t want me to do the buddy pictures.’

‘Good lad. Excellent. Now, let’s line the little buggers up and get this done before they freeze to death out here. I don’t know why we do these things in February. Some EU directive, I suppose – don’t get me started on that one.’

‘It’s because the winter uniform looks better on the pictures,’ volunteered the photographer.

‘Uniform?’ Maxwell stepped back, aghast. ‘Uniform? Do the kids here wear uniform? I had no idea.’

In his day it was all blazers and peaked caps and black polished shoes and turn-ups and fluff inspections. The assembled multitudes behind him did look a motley crew. Banned jeans were on almost every leg, piercings glinted everywhere in the thin February sun. One of them was wearing his grandad’s T-shirt with ‘Led Zeppelin’ written on it. But the chattering, like so many starlings on a wire, was cheerful and there weren’t too many fights going on, just some desultory shoving from the girls in Year Eight, longing to become Year Nine when they could legitimately pinch their dads’ lager supplies and become ladettes. The smartarses from Year Thirteen Physics were poised on the edges of the rows, ready to dash round and, apocryphally, appear at both ends of the photograph. Could it be done? Possibly, in the dear, dead days of Fox-Talbot, but not now, surely? The Senior Leadership Team were shivering on seats in the middle of the front row, like the race apart they so clearly were. James ‘Legs’ Diamond was the Lead Learner, as Headteachers were now called by the Liberal-left, a husk of a man who was prey to nervous
disorders and blown by the double winds of Ofsted and County Hall. At his right hand, all Uriah Heep and false dignity, Bernard Ryan resolutely ignored the appalling behaviour of a knot of Year Seven kids and tried to remember he was Deputy Head. To Diamond’s left, his minder and hatchet-woman, Dierdre Lessing, the Cruella de Vil of Leighford High, sat like the Icemaiden, her sub-zero body temperature the norm at last.

Maxwell patted Bill Lunt’s dejected shoulder and went to take his place, front and centre, with the Sixth Form, Maxwell’s Own. Slowly, the chattering stopped and everyone faced forward, except that one strange child in Year Ten – The Syndrome Kid – who found that focusing was a trick he hadn’t quite mastered.

‘Say Ofsted, everyone,’ cried Maxwell, cheerily.

The shutter clicked and Leighford High School, in all its glory, was captured on film for another year.

‘Brrr,’ Sylvia Matthews was pressed up against Maxwell’s radiator in his office when he walked in after un-marshalling his year group from the photo line-up. It had been the usual thing – the kids loved it and the Senior Leadership Team recoiled in horror. Maxwell barked at them, in what was
probably a passable Lord Cardigan – ‘The Sixth Form will retire. Threes right. Am I hurting you, Reynolds?’ he growled at a passing GNVQ student, ‘I should be, because I’m standing on your ’air!’

BOOK: Maxwell's Chain
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