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Authors: M.J. Trow

Maxwell's Crossing

BOOK: Maxwell's Crossing
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Maxwell's Crossing

M.J. T
ROW

Maxwell's Crossing

To all of you who have wondered if you are in these books – yes, you are!

The email was, as ever, terse. Maxwell, as ever, found it with seconds to spare. ‘Meeting in my office, second period, Monday. J.D.' Because Peter Maxwell always thought of his esteemed headmaster as Legs, he had to think for a moment who this J.D. person was. Then, with an inward tut, he remembered that the man's given name was James. His surname was Diamond, but anyone less like a geezer it would be difficult to find. Maxwell glanced up at the clock in his office that ticked away between the film posters of Audie Murphy and Randolph Scott, a reminder of the days when Men were Men. The second period of the day was only ten minutes old – most of his colleagues would be on phase two of the eight-phase lesson by now – so he decided that he would be magnanimous and turn up. He pushed his chair back from the desk and spun round to face into the room.

The last week of the Autumn Term was always a little depressing. The tinsel, put up with such enthusiasm and about a pound of Blu-Tack, was beginning to sag. The Christmas cards were leaning at rakish angles on any flat surface, the preponderance of an image of a slightly psychopathic-looking robin giving testament to a special offer on at Poundland. An exquisitely wrapped gift inexpertly hidden at the back of a shelf proved that Helen Maitland, Maxwell's trusty Number Two, was as organised as ever. It had been in position since just before half-term, Helen not being a person given to last-minute decisions. The Head of Sixth Form sighed and reached for his scarf and hat. County Council cutbacks had resulted in a school as cold as the Arctic. Classrooms met national guidelines, so the little dears didn't keel over with hypothermia, but to get from A to B meant using dogs, sleds and a backpack of glucose supplies. And all this in the face of Global Warming. Legs Diamond, of course, having banned conkers three years ago, had now given a new directive; should it snow, anyone found snowballing or creating an ice slide, or a snowman with recognisable features of any member of staff, was to report to his deputy, Bernard Ryan, for a good letting off.

Mindful of the wind chill along the Mezzanine corridor which housed his domain, Maxwell closed the door of his office behind him. In the silence of the room a little more tinsel wafted gently to the floor and the Christmas card lovingly inscribed by Jonelle Squabb of Seven Ell Queue slid quietly down behind the radiator,
another link in the urban archaeological site which was Peter Maxwell's office. The long-dead faces from the posters on the walls watched him go – a man on a mission. Impossible? You'd better believe it.

 

Maxwell bounced enthusiastically into James Diamond's office. After the tundra of the foyer, it was like a sauna. Diamond sat in his shirtsleeves – the racy devil – behind his desk. Paul Moss had obviously been in there since the bell went; he had had time to shed his jacket and undo the cardigan he had taken to wearing underneath. Diamond looked pointedly at the clock above the door. Maxwell screwed his head round to follow his gaze then pushed the door to and sat down next to Moss, taking off his scarf and hat and throwing them under his chair.

‘Mr Maxwell,' Diamond said, flatly. ‘Thank you for coming.'

‘Thank you for inviting me, Headmaster,' Maxwell beamed. ‘Should I know why we are here?' He looked enquiringly at his Head of Department.

Paul Moss still looked like a twelve-year-old, although now the hair that skirted his ears was greying and the smile creases at the outer edges of his eyes threatened to turn silently into crow's feet when no one was looking.

‘As you know,' Diamond began, ‘Paul is to leave us temporarily at the end of term to take part in a cultural exchange with an American teacher.'

‘Yes indeed. What an excellent opportunity for him.' Maxwell sounded as though he was reading from a cue card. It was, to his mind, neither excellent nor an
opportunity, but he was a civil man and saw no need to say what he felt, in this case something along the lines of ‘What, are you nuts?'

‘Indeed, indeed,' echoed Diamond, following the Great Man's lead. ‘An opportunity. However,' he dropped his voice, ‘there has been a slight problem at the other end.' He fiddled with his pencil and looked up at Paul.

‘A problem?' Maxwell brightened. Could it be that his prayers were to be answered and in fact they were not to be saddled with what could only laughingly be called an American History teacher?

‘The other half, as it were, of this arrangement, has had to pull out.' Diamond looked at Maxwell dubiously. ‘You doubtless remember my email on the subject.'

Maxwell cocked his head on one side and looked brightly at the man. He looked not unlike the psychopathic robin reproduced so many times along his shelves. ‘Hmm?'

Diamond and Moss sighed as one. Paul Moss had a sneaking suspicion that Maxwell was perfectly aware of what went on in the Leighford High School Super Highway, but played along anyway.

‘My replacement was to have been a very senior teacher from Los Angeles, who would, with a little guidance no doubt from you, Max, have been quite capable of taking on most of the Head of Department work. She has, however, been elected to the State Legislature. This has apparently been an ambition of hers for some years and, obviously, it can't be postponed, so she is no longer coming over.'

A very old joke rose in Maxwell's throat, but he beat it back. He tried to keep the joy from bubbling out as he spoke. ‘So, we'll have a supply, will we? No probl—'

‘Indeed not!' Diamond was aghast. The budgetary implications alone made him want to reach for his tablets from the doctor. ‘No. We will still be having a teacher from across the Pond,' he smiled tightly, to invite the others to join him in his hip command of language. ‘But he … umm …' he consulted the paper in front of him, ‘Hector Gold is younger, less experienced and so, Max, to cut a long story short, Paul and I were hoping you would be able to take on the mantle of Head of History for a year.'

There was a silence so complete that the creaking of the foot-long icicles hanging outside Diamond's window could clearly be heard. Then, having controlled his amusement, Maxwell spoke.

‘I'm sure I could manage that, Headmaster,' he said. It seemed that Diamond was the only person in the school not aware that, to all intents and purposes, de facto and every which way, Maxwell already
was
the Head of History. Paul Moss shot him a grateful glance. His family were already packed and ready to go, to the land of sun and foot-long hot dogs, so if Maxwell had let him down at this late stage, he was wondering if it would be safe to go home.

‘No extra remuneration, I assume?' Maxwell asked pleasantly. He hated to bring up the sordid subject of money and was not remotely surprised when Diamond smiled apologetically and shook his head.

‘If I had my way, of course …'

Maxwell understood that Diamond already had his way, but he smiled back beatifically.

Diamond shot out of his chair, relief all over his usually unreadable face. ‘Max, thank you so much,' he said. ‘I was … that is, Bernard and I wondered if …'

‘What with me being four hundred years old, whether I could manage it?' Maxwell completed the sentence for him. ‘Oh, yes, Headmaster. I'm sure I will manage. I have vague memories of the Year Seven syllabus.' He screwed his head round to look at the clock and felt his neck click. He didn't wince; it seemed inappropriate in a spry young thing like him. ‘Well, time's a-wasting. I'm sure Mr Moss and I have a lot to discuss. Are we still doing Tudors and Stuarts for A level, Paul, or does that depend on the latest initiative from Sir Keith Joseph?' He grabbed his scarf and hat and flung open the door, to the discomfiture of Pansy Donaldson, who had been leaning her ear against it. ‘Sorry, Mrs Donaldson, do come in.'

The woman was thinking fast to concoct a reason for her sudden entry and so didn't react as Maxwell and Moss swept past her and scurried through the ice house to the staffroom fug. As the headmaster's door swung to they heard her launch into a spurious tale of wrongdoing to cover her confusion.

‘She's good,' Maxwell murmured to Paul Moss. ‘Especially bearing in mind that at this time of the morning she is probably still half-cut.'

‘Apparently not,' Moss said. ‘It's not like you to
be behind the times, Max. She's on the wagon, by all accounts. Alcoholics Anonymous.'

‘And the Anonymous part is?' Maxwell asked.

Moss laughed. ‘This
is
Leighford High, Max. Jack Jackson in my tutor group has an auntie whose next-door neighbour is half-sister to the wife of the man who opens up the church hall for them on a Wednesday.'

Maxwell nudged the man in the ribs. ‘Don't make it up,' he admonished. ‘I have a bit of a soft spot for Pansy, one way and another.'

Moss laughed and pushed open the staffroom door, releasing a wave of heat and yesterday's tuna sandwiches. ‘It's true. Well, I may have simplified it, but that's basically the link. Seven degrees of separation. It's the oil that keeps the wheels of gossip turning.'

‘I'll miss you,' Maxwell said, and meant it. ‘I think this Hector Gold may turn out to be rather boring after you.'

Paul Moss blushed slightly and stored the moment away for later. He had always secretly felt rather dull compared with some of the larger-than-life characters with which Leighford High was peopled. Although, on the other hand … Paul could always see the ointment and the fly and this made him the man he was.

He toyed with saying something valedictory, something which would ring in Maxwell's head when he, Paul, was on the other side of the world, up to his waist in the mighty Mississippi or fightin' off pesky varmints like skunks or realtors. He settled for something rather more mundane. ‘Coffee?'

‘Why not?' Maxwell said, flinging himself down in the comfiest chair in the room, which nonetheless challenged even the most robust spine after a while; Deputy Reichsführer Bernard Ryan's secret method to prevent lingering. ‘Since it's nearly Christmas, I may also indulge in a biscuit.'

Moss looked dubiously in the tin. ‘There's only Rich Tea,' he said. ‘And half a Garibaldi.'

‘Ah, you historian, you! Aren't there any mince pies?' Maxwell asked, plaintively.

‘You don't like currants,' Moss said.

‘I know that,' Maxwell said, slightly testily. ‘But I'd defend another man's right to a mince pie to the death. And besides, where there are mince pies, there are often other festive foods. I'm thinking chocolate log, Tunis cake, things of that nature. I haven't had my cholesterol fix today yet.'

Moss tried another tin. ‘Good guess,' he said, diving in with an only slightly smeary knife. ‘Chocolate log it is.'

Maxwell leant back, fingers interlaced across his stomach, padded for the internal weather with more layers than normal. ‘Thank you, Paul,' he said, politely. He mulled over whether he would have time to train Hector Gold in the space of three terms to reach this level of service provision. Americans were a polite people, he had heard, although he had never knowingly had any truck with such a creature. It might turn out all right …

There was a splashy clink as Paul Moss put down his burden of mugs and chocolate log on the table in front
of Maxwell. He sat in the chair opposite, hoping it was the one with the springs intact. There had been a nasty incident the previous week, involving a member of the Art Department, sticking plaster, Dettol and Nurse Sylvia Matthews, which none of the men would forget in a hurry. He was in luck.

‘So, Paul,' Maxwell said, stirring himself enough to be able to reach his mug. ‘Do we know anything about this Hector Gold person?'

Moss took a sip of his coffee to give himself time to think. ‘Not really, Max, to be honest. I only heard about the change the day before yesterday and the bio his school has sent is very brief. It has meant a change in accommodation for us, though. Hector and his wife have no children and so they live in quite a small condominium …'

‘Flat,' muttered Maxwell.

‘… in downtown LA …'

‘The town centre.'

‘… which wouldn't be suitable for us at all.' Moss ploughed on regardless. Maxwell refused to speak Amerenglish for anyone and Hector Gold was just going to have to learn to live with it. You give a nation the finest language in the world and look what they do to it! Ingrates! ‘So, Hector's in-laws are coming along as well, so that we can have their house, which is larger and nearer to Long Beach, which will be nicer for the kids.'

‘Longer drive for you, though, is it?' This remark was thrown in for politeness' sake. Long drives were for other people; to all intents and purposes, Maxwell's world
was bounded by the strength of his leg muscles and the stability of White Surrey's infrastructure. The bike was getting on a bit, not to mention the muscles, but most of Leighford and the surrounding area were still on the menu. The ancient machine lay padlocked to the north of Classroom Two. Actually, the padlock didn't work but everybody knew whose bike it was and wouldn't dream of touching it. Retro-crap meant nothing to the average fourteen-year-old and no bicycle thief would be seen dead riding anything like that.

‘I'm not sure what constitutes a long drive over there,' Moss said. ‘If you go by American sitcoms …' here he paused and glanced covertly at Maxwell, but the Head of Sixth Form was still looking at him with a pleasant smile on his face, as befitted a long-time devotee of Comedy Central. ‘American sitcoms, yes, if you go by them, apparently, no one ever walks. Not even to the end of the road.'

‘So, there will be quite a little party arriving, then?'

‘Yes. As I understand it, there is Hector, his wife, Camille, her mother, Alana and her father … um …'

Maxwell, overwhelmed by the sheer West Coastness of the names, added, ‘Rock?'

‘Pardon?' Paul Moss had been lost in a fugue of trying to remember details he had only skimmed himself some hours before. ‘Oh, Hector's father-in-law? Ha. No. Jeff, I believe. They sound very nice people.' It was hard to tell whether the last sentence was a statement, a question or a deeply felt hope, but Maxwell let it go.

BOOK: Maxwell's Crossing
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