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Authors: M.J. Trow

Maxwell's Mask

BOOK: Maxwell's Mask
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Maxwell's Mask

M.J. TROW

For Michael

Peter ‘Mad Max' Maxwell is an educational dinosaur. He has been teaching history since Jane Marple was a twinkle in Margaret Rutherford's eye. With his cat, Count Metternich, for company, and the love of his life DC Jacquie Carpenter, as the woman in the case, Maxwell has a habit of stumbling on murder.

 

By day, he is the golden-hearted, cynical Head of Sixth Form at a comprehensive school somewhere on the south coast, battling against computerisation and the collapse of the English language. By night, at weekends and in the school holidays, he is doing his bit to fight crime.

M.J. Trow, himself a retired history teacher brings an insider's view of the education system to a series that is by turns hilarious and sad. Maxwell's Cambridge intellect has been stretched ten times so far, as he finds himself unable to turn away from the seamier side of life – and death – and goes head to head with evil.

Darker than the Lestrade series for which Trow is also known, Maxwell confronts the issues that plague our society today – drug
abuse, the breakdown of legitimacy, a loss of direction – and his humanity and guts shine through. The Old Bailey had Horace Rumpole; Leighford High has Peter Maxwell, the dodo of the History Department and the last of the Grand Old Men. But whether you're a kid about to split an infinitive or a murderer about to hide a corpse – beware of ‘Mad Max' Maxwell; he'll get you in the end.

They came in ones and twos under the overhanging arch of willow, solemn, silent; the only noise the crunch of their feet on the gravel.

She watched them from the window as they picked their way in the lengthening shadows. Three or four she recognised, fellow travellers to the Other Side. The others were new to her; anxious faces taking in the dark granite mass of the old vicarage, wondering what they had come to, where they were going. No one made eye contact, no one spoke. She had told them to leave their cars on the road. And all they were to bring with them was one special item, something unique, something to remind them of their dead.

‘I am Rowena,' she said and held out a hand.

The tall, angular man who took it was about to swap names, but she checked him with a soft finger to her lips.

‘No,' she purred, tracing her fingers for a moment over his knuckles and the back of his hand.
‘No names.' She looked up at him, frowning. ‘You are in great pain, aren't you?' she said.

For a moment, the tall man didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He just nodded, feeling a serenity he hadn't known for months. ‘Pass along,' Rowena said softly. ‘The first door on your right. All will be well, she's waiting for you.'

She caught the hand of the next one, a frail lady in a plastic pac-a-mac they hadn't made in forty years. ‘Rowena,' she smiled. And Rowena smiled too and held her soft cheek for a moment. She leaned closer, whispering into the woman's good ear. ‘He's been in touch,' she said. ‘He still loves you very much.' And a little sob broke from the old lady as she tottered by, on her way to her usual seat.

‘Welcome.' Rowena caught the next two simultaneously, one by the left hand, the other the right. ‘There will be news,' she promised. ‘Tonight.' And the pair, a bald, bespectacled man and his nearly as bald and bespectacled wife, gripped each other tightly before moving through the door.

‘Please,' Rowena held the arm of the next, a girl of perhaps twenty with a mass of red hair and a tangle of black, beaded clothes. ‘Don't be afraid. There's nothing to fear from the Other Side, my dear. Only This Side holds its terrors. Please take a seat in the room on the right.'

To the last but one, a sour woman whose greying hair was tied in a wispy bun, Rowena said, ‘So you
came back. I knew you would. You won't be disappointed, believe me. Your chair is by the fireplace.'

It was the last one that caused Rowena to check herself. As she took the gaunt woman's hand and felt her cold jewellery, she was troubled. Something akin to panic gripped her and she didn't know why. ‘We haven't met,' Rowena said. ‘And yet we have.'

‘Our paths have crossed,' the woman said. Her accent was…odd. Eastern European, perhaps. Foreign, certainly. But her gaze was steady. As though she'd seen all this before. Done all this before. But not here. Not in Rowena's home.

‘Please go through,' she said.

‘I know,' the foreign woman said. ‘The room on the right. And any chair but the one with its back to the window.'

‘That's my chair,' Rowena nodded, more uneasy than ever now. When they were all assembled, the unlikely company sitting rigid on their dining chairs in the room lit only by a small fire and the gathering dusk through the window, Rowena lit an oil lamp. Her face flared with the taper and the light spread its warm glow from the glass chimney. She placed it in the centre of the table and sat down, her back to the window as the strange, gaunt woman had predicted. No one knew quite where to look or whether to speak. All except the gaunt woman, and she was staring at Rowena the whole time.

‘Please,' Rowena said. ‘Place your precious things on the table, around the lamp. And please, no talking. We need peace now. Peace and focus.' One by one, the sad little trinkets came out. A rosary. A book of Keats' poems. A yellow glove. A little cross made of raffia. A tattered teddy bear, its ears ripped, one eye gone. A fountain pen,
green-swirled
and brass. The gaunt woman merely placed a business card; it read Magda Lupescu.

Rowena saw it and blinked. Her heart skipped a beat. Skipped several beats. Then she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. No one moved. No one, except Rowena, appeared to be breathing.

‘There is a man,' she said, her back rigid, her upper body rocking gently from side to side. ‘He is standing by the fire.'

They all turned except Magda Lupescu, who remained motionless, her eyes fixed on Rowena the whole time.

‘Is it Alphie?' the old lady asked, unable to see anyone there at all.

Rowena swayed more violently. ‘No,' she said, frowning, listening, trying to catch the garbled snatches of conversation that were out there on the ethereal wind from the Other Side. ‘No. Not Alphie. He's…oh, dear.' She was frowning harder now, her breathing ragged, erratic. ‘Oh, God, no. He's going to die. He's going to pass over.'

‘Who is it, dear?' The old lady was desperate to know.

‘He's tall, dark.' Rowena was squinting to see him in the gloom of her dark drawing room. ‘Not handsome exactly, but he has a certain…roguish charm. His name is… I can't quite make it out. What's that? He's talking to me, but I can't quite…Maxwell. That's it. His name is Maxwell. And he's going to die.'

‘Try to remember the kind of September when you were a young and callow fellow
…' Peter Maxwell chuckled to himself. That was a long time ago, in the Granta days when he had wandered the Cam with his scarf around his neck, brothel-creepers on his feet and dear old Frank Stenton's
Anglo-Saxon England
bulging out of his rucksack. If anyone had said to him, in those dear, dead days, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?' he'd have said, ‘I want to make historical films,' – to be Steven Spielberg before they invented Steven Spielberg. Oh, and win a Nobel Prize for Literature and settle into an old leather chair as Emeritus Professor of History at St Oldfarts' College and watch generations of Young Turks, just like he had been, wandering the Cam with copies of Sir Peter Maxwell bulging from their rucksacks. And when he got to feeling old, he'd up and drown himself in a lake of Southern Comfort.

And how much of all that had come to pass, now
that it was a different September all these years later? And dreams had faded with the summer?

‘Deena Harrison.'

The voice made him turn from the window, overlooking the plane trees that dotted the car park where colleagues were colliding with children to beat them to the school gates. ‘Holy Mother of God. Now there's a blast from the past.'

‘Sorry, Max, you were miles away.'

‘I was, Sylv,' the Great Man confessed. ‘Lamenting my lost youth. And now you bring me another lost youth. What's she done? Burned down Brasenose? Pushed a professor off Tom Tower? I wouldn't expect much less.' He knew perfectly well that Deena Harrison hadn't gone to Brasenose with its legendary doorknocker, or Christ Church, over which the seven-ton bell called Great Tom loomed. It was just that Peter Maxwell was a sucker for alliteration.

‘We had a date for coffee,' Sylv reminded him.

‘God, it's Thursday.' He slapped his forehead and kicked the flimsy Consortium furniture in mock fury. ‘How could I have been so remiss? One lump or two?' He desperately tried to find a clean mug on the grisly surface of his second-hand office fridge.

‘Why do you buy those bloody things?' she asked him. ‘By the time they've dissolved, I'm on to my third repetitive strain injury of the morning. And that's just the staff. God, my feet.'

Sylvia Matthews was the school nurse, the Florence Nightingale of Leighford High, forbidden by EU law to do nearly everything that nurses once did, like giving out tablets and driving kids to hospital. But then, EU law was doing its best to make life impossible for everybody. Peter Maxwell hadn't been allowed to touch a stick of chalk since 1978. And the last time he'd hit a child that nice Mr Baldwin was at Number Ten and somebody pinched the Lindbergh baby.

Sylvia sat down heavily at the end of another Leighford day. The roar and clatter of eleven hundred children leaving the building like it was the Towering Inferno had long ago died to a distant drone. The horde would be on its way to the High Street by now to shoplift for England. Nervous proprietors were already erecting shutters and flicking up ‘Closed' signs. The odd miscreant was still skulking in the corners of the school where the CCTV didn't reach, probably plotting tonight's little sortie to wreck the Geography Department's weather Thingee perched invitingly on the flat roof four storeys up. Better brought-up children would have put their intrepidity to better use, like tackling K2 or whichever is the dodgiest face of the Eiger. A solitary child wandered the otherwise deserted Quad below Maxwell's office, carrying the front wheel of his bike; the rest of the contraption had mysteriously vanished about half past three.

‘Deena Harrison?' Peter Maxwell was being
mother, sniffing the milk carton as he automatically did, for fear. King Cholera wasn't exactly back in Leighford, but every other nasty had been spread far and wide by the National Health Service.

‘She's back.'

‘That would be right,' Maxwell nodded. ‘Went up to Oxford three years ago. She'll have graduated.'

‘Yes, but I mean she's back here, in school.'

‘Ah, the lure of the old place.' He passed her a steaming mug. ‘They just can't stay away.'

‘Max, we're talking about Deena Harrison.' Sylvia looked at the man. The walk was slightly more plodding these days and he took the stairs two at a time now rather than his erstwhile three. The hair was wilder, wirier, greyer, but the eyes were as dark and bright – and sad – as ever. Peter Maxwell had been Head of Sixth Form at Leighford High for as long as anyone could remember. He had long ago leapt that generational hurdle which saw him teaching the children of the children he had taught. One day – and it wouldn't be long now – some kid would say ‘'Ere, sir, you taught my granddad.' And on that day, Peter Maxwell had promised himself, he would take the loaded Webley Mark IV from his desk and put a bullet in his own brain.

‘Deena Harrison,' Sylvia persisted. ‘You must remember her rap sheet?'

Maxwell sat opposite her on his swivel, the one luxury he allowed himself in the inner sanctum that
was the office of the Head of Sixth Form. ‘Oh, I do,' he nodded, scalding his lip on the coffee. ‘Let's see. In her first year here she set fire to the toilet block.'

‘Wanted to see what happens when you put a lighter to toilet paper,' Sylvia recollected the girl's excuse.

‘Nothing wrong with that,' Maxwell winked. ‘Healthy spirit of enquiry, that was all. What did happen when she put a lighter to toilet paper?'

‘A couple of grand's worth of damage and two months of the loo in my sick bay being used like a public convenience.'

‘Tsk, tsk,' Maxwell shook his head.

‘Then there was Ollie Wendell.'

‘Oh, yes,' Maxwell smiled at the memory of the snot-nosed kid. ‘Mind you, he had it coming.'

‘Max,' Sylvia sat upright. ‘Deena threw him down the stairs in the Science Block.'

‘Now, we only have Ollie's word for that.' Maxwell wagged a pinko-liberal finger at her. He who had no pinko-liberal digits of any kind.

‘Don't give me that. John Anstruther was on duty that break-time if I remember. Got there seconds later and Deena was giggling at the top of the stairs while Ollie was spark out at the bottom. Could have killed him.'

‘That was the point, Sylv. Any one of us could have killed Ollie Wendell. My money was always on John Anstruther. Physics teacher. No rapport with kids. “Got there seconds later” indeed!'

She looked around her. ‘If you had any cushions on this bloody awful settee of yours, I'd throw one at you. You know as well as I do the girl belonged in a straitjacket.'

‘Ah, but the voice, Sylv, the voice. She made Charlotte Church sound like…someone who can't sing. Damned good actress too. That's why Legs kept her on. Invoked all sorts of inclusion clauses and EU equal opportunities initiatives and she stayed. She came good in the end.'

‘Legs' was James Diamond, Leighford's Headteacher, named by Maxwell for the fictional gangster in the film of the same name. Oddly enough, that very poster was stretched on the wall above Maxwell's desk, the darkly handsome Ray Danton smouldering coldly at the camera. In his more exasperated moments, Maxwell threw darts at it; pretty unfair on Ray Danton and not half painful enough for James Diamond.

‘Don't tell me you're applauding a decision made by Diamond?' Sylvia couldn't believe it. Perhaps the man was unwell.

‘Wash your mouth out, Nurse Matthews,' Maxwell bridled. ‘Legs got lucky, that was all. If we'd had Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Aileen Wournos at Leighford, Legs would have made them a Special Needs group and told them they needn't wear uniform or go to lessons. It's just that Deena grew up. She was fine in the Sixth Form.'

‘The Water Fight in '01?'

Maxwell screwed his face up. ‘Too close to call. I had Roger Morris in the frame for that one.' Maxwell always had Roger Morris in the frame. He had ‘fall-guy' written all over him.

‘Morris was a patsy,' Sylvia corrected him. ‘Deena was behind it. Trust me. And what about the Millennium fireworks?'

‘Ah, that was quite beautiful in its own way.' The Great Man smiled at the memory of it. Beautiful in a Somme sort of way.

Sylvia stopped in mid-gulp. ‘Max, I can see the
Advertiser
's headline now. “Arson at Leighford. Rocket attack on Sixth Form block”.'

‘Yes, and if you also remember the small print, the
Advertiser
's reporter even speculated an IRA connection. Say what you like, those Catherine wheels were quite enchanting.'

‘Except that they were pinned to the back door of every house in the bloody neighbourhood. The phone was ringing off the hook with complaints.'

‘That's right,' Maxwell remembered. ‘Thingees One and Two on the switchboard both went home crying on two consecutive days. Funny how when kids go on the rampage it's always the school's fault and never the parents'.'

‘Deena,' Sylvia announced triumphantly.

‘You see, Sylv,' Maxwell leaned back in the swivel, clasping his hands across his waistcoat, ‘we, in this great democracy of ours, need a little thing called proof. In a court of law…'

‘Max!' Sylvia stood up. ‘You're impossible. And…' she pointed a finger at him, ‘like all men, you'll forgive a lot for a pretty face and a pair of sparkling eyes. That girl was trouble. And she still is. Thanks for the coffee.' She put the mug back for him, but pointedly didn't offer to wash up. ‘You have a nice evening, now.'

‘You too, Nursie.' He patted the pile of exercise books on the desk beside him, just a little reminder of the gulf of devotion that separated their worlds. ‘Love to Guy.'

‘And to Jacquie.' Sylvia ignored his body language. Maxwell had a heart of gold, but he'd rather have his liver torn out than mark a book. ‘How is she, by the way?'

‘Well, morning sickness has given way to an appallingly healthy aura. She's pink and breezy and really quite nauseating, especially at five in the morning when I'm trying to get my beauty sleep. I hear this distant hum, bit like the Zulu approaching Rorke's Drift. It's Jacquie, totally unable to resist the urge to hoover in the lounge. Oh, and she's rather soppy at the moment, bursting into tears all the time.'

Sylvia laughed, ‘That's what pregnancy will do to you every time.'

‘God, is she pregnant?' Maxwell looked aghast. ‘How did that happen?'

She threw a metaphorical cushion at him and was on her way.

 

The rain set in early that night, sweeping from the west across the South Downs, bouncing off the coloured lights that swung and dangled across the High Street and the Front, soaking the hoardings that proclaimed that Freddie and the Dreamers were playing the pier back in July and a Perry Como tribute band was going to wow everybody early in October. The dark headland that was the Shingle was a shapeless mass that melted into the great grey ghost of the sea as Peter Maxwell stared out from his skylight.

Any stray bird, winging homeward in the driving rain after a hard day's worming, would have been struck by the odd sight on the dry side of the glass. Peter Maxwell was standing in the loft of 38 Columbine, his home now for the best part of twenty years, a Crimean officer's pill box cap at a rakish angle on his barbed-wire hair and a glass of Southern Comfort in his left hand. In his right hand was a paintbrush, a little clump of sable that had never been anywhere near a squirrel. Under the fierce glare of the lamp and the modeller's magnifying glass on the table in front of him, his latest acquisition was taking shape. Private William Pennington of the 11th Prince Albert's Own Hussars sat his bay nonchalantly, waiting, in his own plastic, fifty-four millimetre sort of way, for the balloon to go up. Across the room from Maxwell's modelling table lay Maxwell's pride and joy, his lifetime's work. Four hundred and sixteen
soldiers of Lord Cardigan's Light Brigade were drawn up at the safe end of the Valley of Death, waiting for the Noble Yachtsman to give the order to ‘Walk, March, Trot'. Maxwell had been putting this collection together for ever. Other men fished, played football, went down the pub. Peter Maxwell collected, glued, painted and adapted model soldiers. It was, he supposed in his darker moments, an addiction of sorts. But he remained resolutely in denial, refusing to go to the monthly Modellers Anonymous meetings they held in Tottingleigh Village Hall, where sad middle-aged men sat in corners and tried to come to terms with their problem. ‘I am Peter Maxwell and I'm a Modeller.'

Maxwell sat back down, flicking the gloss black onto Pennington's sabretache and the slings that secured it to his sword belt.

‘Well, you've just got to start listening, Count,' he murmured without looking up. ‘Because I've told you all this already. William Henry Pennington had served in the Merchant Navy before enlisting in the 11th…well, it was the nicer uniform, I suppose. Dublin, that's where he joined up. What the hell was he doing there?'

The Count had no answer. That was partly because he didn't give a rat's arse and partly because he was an eleven-year-old neutered tom cat.

‘Bit of a smartarse, this one. Survived the charge, thanks to a kindly old TSM in the 8th, and went on
to become an actor. Wowed old Gladstone with his Hamlet, apparently. Became the Grand Old Man's “favourite tragedian” – and I quote. But then, Gladstone also believed he could answer the Irish Question – Gladstone, that is, not Pennington. You going out tonight?'

The Count stretched, yawning, just to show his Master his superior set of gnashers, sharp as needles and twice as deadly.

‘Yeah, I know,' Maxwell nodded, glancing up for the first time. ‘Was the Pope a member of the Hitler Youth? Well, you've got to remember, Count, there's a lady of the house, now. It's not just you, me and most of the Light Brigade anymore. You come in quietly, closing the cat flap behind you, and you do not, repeat,
not
bring back any little chums, especially chums that will become a late-night snack for you later. The Memsahib doesn't go a bundle on things that go squelch in the night. Get it? Got it? Good.'

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