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Authors: M. J. Trow

Maxwell’s Movie

BOOK: Maxwell’s Movie
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Maxwell’s Movie

M J Trow

Copyright © 2013 M J Trow

All Rights Reserved

This edition published in 2013 by:

Thistle Publishing

36 Great Smith Street

London

SW1P 3BU

1

The detective’s silhouette darkened the net curtains of the front door. The lock rattled once and he was in, peering around in the gloomy recesses of the hall. The door closed behind him with a heavy click. Only the clock ticked, only the lights burned dim. He saw the peeling paint on the door on his right and the handle bright with the clawing of a thousand hands. The door to the fruit cellar.

To his left the stairs stretched up with their ornate banisters, gleaming in mahogany. That was the way he went, cautious, glancing round.

Only his own footsteps rang back, echoing through the still and empty house. He had swept off the fedora and with his other hand caught the stair-rail. He heard his foot creak on the second stair, then the third, then the fourth. All the time his eyes remained fixed on the velvet-draped light on the first landing. He didn’t see the door open, above him and to his left.

There was a tightness in his chest, like the winding of a spring. His heart hammered like a drum, thundering in his chest and his ears. For a moment, he toyed with reaching for the .38 nestling in the leather by his armpit. Then he changed his mind. He’d reached the top of the stairs.

Whatever it was, came at him from the bedroom, from the door to his left. A tall, angular woman with a bad wig, her long calico dress clinging as she crossed the landing in a single stride, the gaslight shining on her silver hair. There was a breadknife in her right hand and it flashed once, twice, slicing through the dusty, summer night air to thud into his chest, slashing his braces and his shirt. Crimson leapt over his lapel, streaking his forehead and left cheek. The hat fell from his grasp. He tottered backwards, both arms raised and fingers clawing the air until his heels missed the stairs behind him and the knife was still stabbing, hacking at him as he fell, bouncing on the runners, rolling to the floor.

Whatever discordant music blared through her head, like finger-nails on a blackboard, stopped. The long knife lay bloody on the carpet. She bent down. She put an arm, tenderly, lovingly, under his head and another round his waist. She hauled him upright and steadied him for a moment while the blood still pumped from his heart Then she tilted him and took his full weight on her arms, striding for the stairs.

She walked the way he had walked, up the creaking stairway, singing softly to herself, swaying now from side to side, with that curious, angular way of hers. He felt like lead in her arms, but she couldn’t stop now. One more step. One or two and she’d be there. She kicked open the door with her right foot and, careful not to hurt his head, inched him through.

The door clicked softly behind her. And there was silence. The hall lay empty where she’d left it, a hat at an impossible angle on the stair, a trail of blood down the threadbare carpet.

Then the line, beyond the door, that had chilled the hearts of millions. A young man’s voice, terrified, appalled, ‘No, Mother. No. Blood. Blood.’

Peter Maxwell shook himself free of its magic. The screen in front of him was poised for another snippet, this time a bearded Henry Fonda playing Wyatt Earp (fairly badly) in
My Darling Clementine
. But Maxwell was out of his plush seat by now, handling the fuzzy flock for one last time. It was all done by mirrors of course. Skinny Anthony Perkins, eight stone wringing wet, could never have lifted fifteen stone Martin Balsam, with or without his fedora. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that
Psycho
had woven its spell again. Maxwell chuckled to himself as he left the theatre, at that old fraud Hitchcock who claimed he never intended to frighten anybody with his noirest of films noirs. Not the shadow on the shower curtain; not Janet Leigh’s blood flushing away through the overflow; not the creature on the landing who knifed Martin Balsam while the camera looked down from the ceiling; not the hideous corpse in the fruit cellar, with its iron grey bun lovingly styled over the hollow-eyed skull; no, not any of that was intended to frighten. You old bastard, Maxwell thought to himself.

Still, he realized as they made for the television section, they were all dead now, weren’t they? Hitch, Anthony Perkins, even dear old Martin Balsam. They didn’t make them that way any more, they’d broken the mould, thrown away the key; a whole cloud of clichés filled his mind.

At the exitway, he stopped, turned. In the building he’d just left lay all the dreams of his childhood. Flash Gordon, Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, they were all there. And they weren’t all dead. Not all of them. A new generation was wowing them now and it did it in the confines of their living rooms, with the remote and the video cardd Bond was still there. And Batman. And if they had to be extra careful with the lighting these days, on Moore and Connery and the rest, so what? Maxwell caught his own reflection in the glass of the door. ‘We’re none of us as young as we were,’ he thought to himself.

‘School parties?’ A harassed, bespectacled thing in an anorak collided with him, forty or so screaming maniacs at his shoulder.

‘That’s rather a contradiction in terms, isn’t it?’ Maxwell asked him

But the man was a middle school teacher and the irony was lost on him, ‘No, I mean, do you know where school parties go?’

Well,’ Maxwell smiled at him, ‘if you had a pipe on you, I’d say “Keep playing and turn left. That way you’ll reach the river and you never know your luck.” As it is, I think – mind you, it’s a hundred to one shot, but there you are – I think it’s that gate over there; the one that says “School parties”.’ And he raised his shapeless hat briefly above his shapeless hair. ‘Enjoy’ he said, beaming at the screaming, squabbling children. ‘Plenty of room in the one and nines.’

Some teachers – and all people who work in Maths departments – call school trips ‘jollies’. No one quite knows why, because anything less jolly is difficult to imagine. There are those twisted, melancholy souls who have compared them with the cattle trucks to Auschwitz, but these are clearly sad characters with chips on their shoulders. The reason that staff in Maths departments call trips ‘jollies’ is that they have never been on one. After all, where does a Maths teacher go to enjoy himself?

‘Jollies’ start with the germ of an idea. An idea that must be communicated to kids.

Kids are difficult to define. The ones in front of Peter ‘Mad Max’ Maxwell at Leighford High that Monday morning were tolerably human, sitting in serried ranks in the heart of his History empire on the first floor.

‘MOMI,’ Maxwell said, leaning back on the hind legs of his chair, in the way he told his charges they must never do, ‘the Museum of the Moving Image. It’s brilliant, it’s dazzling. You can fly over London, be interviewed by Barry Norman and pretend to be a Dalek. In fact, you can nearly do all three simultaneously. How about it?’

A scattering of hands went up. Eyes flickered from side to side, checking the peer group, yielding to the pressure.

‘I can arrange for it to take place on the day of your chemistry test,’ he said.

Bingo! Thirty-one hands shot clear in the morning air.

After the idea comes the paperwork. Forms in triplicate are not confined to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces or the more cobwebbed corners of the Civil Service. They can be found in any High School in the land and many and mighty are they. Maxwell, a stranger to ware of any kind, be it hard or soft, laboriously wrote out the names of the trippers he intended to take and wrote their telephone numbers alongside each one. He checked with the file cards in the front office on their medical peculiarities – the asthmatics, the diabetics, the bed-wetters. The psychopaths he knew already. Then he made for the staffroom in search of a woman.

‘Anthea!’ he swept across the grubby carpet in his shambling stride and snatched her hand, ‘vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman’ – he broke instantly into his Laurence Olivier doing Richard III ‘grant me a boon.’

‘Max!’ Anthea was young enough to be Maxwell’s daughter. He’d always terrified her, this grizzled eminence, and she couldn’t rise to his level of repartee.

Without a flicker, the Head of Sixth Form bared his teeth in a halfway reasonable Humphrey Bogart, ‘Of all the staff rooms in all the schools in all the world, you had to walk into mine.’

‘What is it, Max?’ the girl’s neck mottled crimson in her embarrassment.

‘MOMI,’ Maxwell told her, perching himself on the photocopier in the corner. ‘The Museum of the Moving Image. Fancy taking a coachload of ungrateful herberts on the jolly of a lifetime?’

‘When?’

‘Week Wednesday’

Anthea’s timetable flashed before her. Double Year 9. The weekly inter-classroom gobbing contest. That and breaktime duty. ‘Love to,’ she beamed.

‘Excellent. Leave the details to me. Oh, could you book the coach please? Hamilton’s, for my money’

‘Er … yes, of course.’

A cadaver in a white coat was hovering at Maxwell’s elbow. ‘Could I use that, Max?’ it asked.

‘The merest intimation from our revered Head of Chemistry and I leap to attention, Monsieur Lavoisier.’ He moved his bum so that his colleague could reach the photocopier, ‘Ah, so that’s how you use that thing. Marvellous!’ and he shook his head in admiration, his tongue firmly in his cheek. ‘Oh, Ben, by the way, rather bad news, I’m afraid. The Deputy Headmaster has asked me to take a jolly to the Museum of the Moving Image and he’s chosen week Wednesday That’s a Science SAT day, isn’t it?’

‘He can’t do that!’ Ben Horton snapped, his finger poised over his PIN number.

‘Well, that’s what I told him,’ Maxwell spread his arms abroad in agony and loss, ‘but you know what Bernard’s like. You can do it the next day, can’t you?’

‘Well, I don’t know …’

‘Three one eight.’ Maxwell told the Head of Chemistry his photocopier PIN number.

‘Er … yes, I know.’ The Head of Chemistry didn’t like the sound of that – the Head of Sixth Form being so au fait with the innermost secrets of the Science Department. It smacked of corruption.

‘Well, he seemed to think it would be all right.’ Maxwell beamed at him and turned to go. ‘Oh, Anthea, you couldn’t write the letter, could you? You know, usual thing, on History Department heading, get Paul to sign it. Oh and include a few of your set, too. It’ll cut the cost per head.’

Paul Moss, Maxwell’s Head of Department, was easy going and he knew the old bastard who was his Number Two only too well. Like the Queen, God bless her, Paul would sign anything initiated by Mad Max.

Bernard Ryan, the Pastoral Deputy, was a different matter. Pastoral Deputies were inevitably secondary to Curriculum Deputies in Gillian Shepherd’s England. Surprisingly pompous for a man who had yet to see thirty-five, standing on ceremony was listed high on his CV

‘Does this place have any educational value, Max?’ he asked the trip’s instigator the next day, when Maxwell’s paperwork hit his desk.

Maxwell closed to his man, grinning broadly, placing an avuncular arm around his shoulder. ‘Tell me, Bernard,’ he said, ‘do bears shit in the woods?’

Not being a biologist, Ryan was rather stuck for an answer. ‘Wait a minute,’ was the best he could do, peering at the monster timetable pinned to his wall, ‘week Wednesday, there’s a Standard Attainment Test. Science.’

‘There is, indeed.’ Maxwell squeezed the man’s shoulder, then let him go, ‘but Ben insisted. He’s happy with a week Thursday’

‘He is?’ Ryan blinked.

Maxwell spread his arms, ‘You know what Ben’s like,’ he smiled, wide-eyed.

And so it was that Maxwell’s ‘jolly’ was sorted. In the blackboard jungle of nineties education, there were still clearings in the darkness, lights in the forest. It wasn’t all Ofsted and League Tables and teacher suicides and headmasters being stabbed to death. But of course, there was still flu.

They may have put a man on the moon when Maxwell was a youngish shaver. They could play CDs in cars and thirty per cent of the nation’s youth went to university. But they still couldn’t cure the common cold. Not that there was anything common about the virus that hit Peter Maxwell that wet Monday morning in April. ‘Hit’ was the wrong word. It sidled up to him over his morning muffins, tickled his nostrils as he read out the notices in Assembly. By the time he’d covered last-minute revision of Stalin’s foreign policy with Year Eleven, it had got him by the tonsils and it was singularly apt that afternoon that as he told a gobsmacked Lower Sixth cohort all about Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, he was shivering like a snowflake.

How he saddled White Surrey, his trusty bicycle, that afternoon, he couldn’t remember. The slightly rusty old machine, named after the charger Richard III rode at Bosworth Field, could find the way to Maxwell’s house by itself. The smokers puffing their way homeward along the boundary hedge saw him wobble across the fields and didn’t give the old duffer evens on getting home alive. But this was Mad Max, who had looked life and death in the eye and lived to tell the tale. He’d once peed in an adjacent urinal to Sir John Barbirolli.
Nothing
could stop Mad Max.

He threw White Surrey against his back wall, fumbled with the Yale and staggered upstairs to bed. The coursework would have to wait. Trevor Macdonald would be talking to himself that night. The black and white cat, Metternich, watched him go with the inscrutability that has marked the feline. Maxwell had taken one look at the former bundle of fur beating hell out of its siblings in the litter and named him for Prince Klemens Lothar Wenzel, Count Metternich, the Coachman of Europe, who had similarly kicked ass for forty years of the nineteenth century in the various Chancelleries of Europe. The Count sat down at the foot of the stairs and got on with the important things in life, like cleaning his bum.

Maxwell had not had a voluntary day off in eight years. He’d forgotten the procedure, if he ever knew it. There was a number to ring, Bernard Ryan’s exclusive ex-directory number, but Maxwell wouldn’t have rung Bernard Ryan if he were the last man on earth. So he rang school next morning and spoke to Thingee, the girl on the switchboard.

‘Maxwell here, Thingee,’ he croaked. ‘Bit under par this morning. Any chance of getting hold of Paul Moss for me? I haven’t got my books to hand so I can’t really set any work. But then, that’s the beauty of the National Curriculum, isn’t it? Week 24, so it must be Communist Russia the wide world o’er. I’ll be back by tomorrow’

BOOK: Maxwell’s Movie
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