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Authors: M. J. Trow

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Maxwell's Retirement

BOOK: Maxwell's Retirement
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Maxwell’s Retirement

M.J. Trow

Maxwell’s Retirement

The time capsule, faintly disguised as an office, waited, lifeless without its occupant. The movie posters on the wall reflected each other dully in their laminated surfaces. The coffee cup on the desk still held a brief memory of its warmth from the start of the day. The fridge hummed softly and the kettle clicked away its heat. The chair was pushed back from the desk, a pink and blue scarf thrown casually across the back. A pile of
dogeared
exercise books teetered on its seat. The desk was not its usually neat self: a pen and a diary, a mark book, and a box of tissues, weeping girls for the use of, had been pushed to one side to accommodate a brown box.

In itself, the box was not particularly ominous. It was large, granted, but otherwise
non-threatening
. It had no labels: no lightning flashes to show it was live and shocking; no skull and crossbones to show it was poisonous; no sign of
that meaningless biohazard symbol. It did not appear to contain dangerous chemicals of any kind, nor yet live animals, either tame or wild. But even so, as it sat, silent and still in the middle of the desk, it seemed to exude its own evil.

Every now and again the door to the room would open and there would be a sharp intake of breath. The door would then close again and leave the box to its own quiet thoughts. The hushed air of the room began to vibrate, on a very low wavelength, to the murmur of a growing crowd outside in the corridor. The voices rose and fell with the addition of each newcomer as every member of the crush whispered the news. Then, a hush so total that the word ‘silence’ could hardly accommodate it.

A voice, raised to normal speaking level, cut through the thickness of the quiet.

‘Why are you all outside my office? You can’t
all
be wanting to change courses. You had your chance last September and you muffed it. I want everybody other than …’ there was a pause … ‘Unman, Whittering and Zigo, to clear off to wherever you should be.’

There was a scuttling of feet and stifled laughter as the mob dispersed.

There was a pause. ‘Why are you still here?’

‘I’m Whittering, sir,’ said a small voice.

‘Are you?’ There was a pause, long enough for a moderately tall man to bend down to examine a
moderately short boy. ‘So you are. Well, you are excused.’

There was a solo scamper, stopped short by a question.

‘Why were you all outside my door?’

‘I don’t really know, sir. I couldn’t get past, that’s all. I was on my way to the library. I think someone mentioned …’

‘Yes, well, don’t keep it to yourself, Whittering. What did someone mention?’

‘A box, sir.’

‘A box?’

‘Yes.’

The door handle turned and the owner of the voice stepped into the room. His name was Peter Maxwell. He was Head of Sixth Form. He was nearly four hundred years old in a metaphysical sort of way and today he was staring his future in the face.

‘Oh, bugger.’ He half turned to the Year Seven lad at his elbow. ‘Pardon my French, Whittering. Could you pop along to the IT room for me, please?’

The boy stood there.

The man turned round fully. ‘Still here, Whittering?’

‘Why am I popping along to the IT room, sir?’

Just what Maxwell needed – a Year Seven lad with an enquiring mind. ‘Sorry, Whittering. I’ve had a bit of a shock. Yes, tell Miss Thompson to
come to my office at once. She is to bring scissors and a good excuse.’

The lad wanted to get it right. ‘Scissors and an excuse, sir?’

‘Yes. Scissors to open this box. An excuse to explain why she has seen fit to deliver to Mr Maxwell one laptop, technophiles for the use of.’ He turned to the boy. ‘Chop-chop, now, Whittering. Time’s a-wasting. The sooner I get rid of this box, the sooner I can get on with other things. Like teaching you and yours the minutiae of the causes of the Black Death.’

‘Fleas.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Fleas, sir. The minutiae of the causes of the Black Death.’

‘Not bad, Whittering. I would have preferred a bacillus and the specific flea
ceratophyllus fasciatus
, but still, not bad. There are two other things to remember, though.’

‘Yes, sir?’

He closed to the boy. ‘I do the jokes and nobody likes a smartarse. Now, run along, like a good chap and fetch Miss Thompson.’

The boy ran off – the Head of Sixth Form couldn’t be arsed to tell him to walk – and Maxwell ran his hands through his barbed wire hair as he turned to confront his nemesis. This was the nearest he had come to having a computer thrust upon him and his footwork
would have to be at its niftiest to repel it at this late stage. Ever since Charles Babbage had dreamt up his Difference Engine in 1822, Maxwell had been dreading this day. He sighed and walked round behind his desk to await his fate in the shape of Miss Thompson, of IT, an IT girl for her generation.

Nicole Thompson was quite little and dark – littler and darker than the Head of Sixth Form certainly – and she put her head tentatively round the edge of Maxwell’s door. She had not been at Leighford High School for long before she had felt the hot breath of Tyrannosaurus Maxwellianensis on the back of her neck as she bent over a keyboard in her room under the eaves. She felt as strongly as he did when it came to technology; they were simply standing at the opposite ends of a scale marked one to infinity, where one was embracing everything Bill Gates could throw and infinity was best represented by a piece of chalk and a brain the size of the O2 Arena. Or the Millennium Dome, as Maxwell had finally got around to calling it, on the day after it had closed. He and Jacquie could still end up not speaking after another bout of the perennial ‘when did the century begin?’ argument, first started when she
was only Woman Policeman Carpenter and he was That Bloody Nuisance Maxwell.

‘Max?’

He looked up, sharply, dragged from his contemplation of what he had begun to think of as The Box. It was Nicole Thompson, funnily enough. ‘Clara! Thank you so much for being so quick.’

‘Faster than a speeding bullet, me, Max, as you know. Now I’m on broadband. Ha ha.’

He smiled, a thin little smile. ‘Oh ho, Clara. A technology joke. Very droll.’

‘And you, Max. A silent movie reference. As ever.’

He looked her in the eyes and this time the smile was real. He was impressed.

‘Clara, you have a mind like a …’

‘Computer?’

‘I was going to say razor, but whatever pleases you. Now,’ he looked at her sternly, and tapped the cardboard, ‘I notice you have not brought two hearty chaps to carry away this box.’

She stared him straight in the eye. ‘That’s because the box, or I should perhaps say the
contents
of the box, are not going anywhere, Max. You are joining us on the virtual highway, if I have to drag you there kicking and screaming myself.’

He looked grumpy. He knew it was his most endearing expression and had melted hearts from
Leighford to Tottingleigh. ‘I already know how to use a computer.’

‘I’m not talking about a bit of surfing for research, Max. I’m not talking about checking the weather on the BBC news site.’

‘Hmmph! I don’t do that.’ He looked even more truculent.

‘No, Max, I know. Or at least, not our weather. The last time I looked over your shoulder you seemed engrossed in the weather in Uzbekistan.’

‘I couldn’t seem to escape from the former USSR,’ he muttered. ‘It goes with the territory in the teaching Year Thirteen stakes. However, Clara, I rest my case. I can use a computer. I have a Pea Sea in my office already,’ he waved extravagantly to where a dusty computer almost as old as the building glowered and hummed. ‘I don’t want a laptop. I don’t need a laptop. So, ergo elk, my dear girl, you can take it away.’ He smiled winningly and made half-hearted shooing motions with both hands. ‘Can I carry it for you, perhaps?’ After all, he had, in aeons gone by, been a public schoolboy. ‘They use so much packaging these days, don’t they? Makes it heavy.’ He picked it up. ‘Ooh, yes, very heavy.’ He hefted it into a more comfortable position, stifling a groan, and made for the door.

She didn’t move and he turned.

‘So, where to? Your office, I expect. Hmm?’

‘Max,’ she said, her voice dripping patience.
‘That laptop is not going back to my office. I would say that it is going nowhere, except that that would be inaccurate. It is going everywhere you go. It is going to lessons with you. It is going home with you at night. It is going to meetings. But before that, it is going on your desk and you and I are going to sit in front of it until I am happy that you are confident in its use. You were
at
the same staff IT familiarisation meeting as I was at, weren’t you?’

He looked at her, open-mouthed. Not for a moment did he think that headmaster Legs Diamond’s writ applied to him. The use of computers in schools was surely for the children or, at the very worst, the children on the staff.

‘And that’s final.’ She relented and moved towards him to shepherd him back to his desk. She sat him down and slid the box to one side. She perched on the corner of his desk and looked down at him. ‘I’m not a bully, Max. Really I’m not. But the county has begun a paperless-office campaign and Mr Diamond has decided to roll it out at Leighford High School as a matter of urgency. That means no memos, no printed minutes, no paper at all.’

‘Lavatory paper?’ he asked, weakly, household names like Bronco and Izal swimming in his memory.

‘Only when totally necessary,’ she smiled. ‘But, seriously, Max. You knew about this, surely?’

‘I didn’t get a memo as I recall … Oh. I see.’ He pushed himself back from the desk and sighed. ‘I’m not a happy bunny, Clara. Not happy at all.’

She patted his shoulder. ‘I can see that you’re not,’ she said. ‘So let’s try and make this as painless as possible, shall we?’ A thought occurred to her and she tried to frame her next question tactfully. ‘Your wife? Is she … um, like you, at all?’

Maxwell considered the wonders that were Jacquie. ‘Not really,’ he said. ‘Her hair is longer and a lovely chestnut colour. She’s shorter than me and a different shape, of course. Thankfully. Our son can tell us apart, and so can the cat, so there must be enough differences between us. “
Vive
,” as they say over in Modern Languages, “
la différence
”.’

‘I think you know what I meant,’ she said, icily. ‘I meant, is she as computer-phobic as you?’

‘No, not at all. She uses a computer all day at work and helps me out with anything I need. That’s why,’ he looked up from under cunning lashes, ‘I think what I’ll do is just take this home and let her sort me out.’

Nicole slammed her hand down on the desk and made them both jump. ‘No!’ she almost shouted. ‘She won’t be with you every minute, will she? You’ve really got to get to grips with this, Max. You won’t even be able to register a class
without this. You won’t be able to write reports, mark exams … Need I go on?’

Maxwell was smiling. The thought of no marking or report writing was almost too wonderful to contemplate. He shook himself and looked her in the eye. He saw steel there and capitulated. Had it come to this? A slip of a girl without a teaching qualification to her name calling the shots? ‘All right, Clara,’ he smiled. ‘Let’s get on with this. I bow,’ and he did so, stiffly, like George Peppard in his namesake film,
The Blue Max
, from the waist, ‘to your expertise and to your dogged determination. I can give you five minutes.’

‘We have all day, Max,’ she said, grimly. ‘I’ve covered all your lessons for today. Neither of us leaves this room until I have you at one with this machine.’
She
had covered all his lessons? Had the world gone mad?

‘You’ll turn me into a robot, Clara. Like C3PO.’ The android voice was perfect.

‘As I recall,’ Nicole said, dredging her Old Films memory, ‘C3PO was obedient. If you became a robot at all, I feel sure you would be more like the rebel one in
I, Robot
.’

Maxwell smiled. ‘Do you think so? A rebel robot, eh?’ He chuckled and reached into his drawer for a box opener. ‘Let’s do this thing.’ It was as though Will Smith had just walked in.

As Nicole went to fetch another chair, she blew
outwards, silently. She had managed it. They had all said she wouldn’t. But she had tamed Peter Maxwell, the dinosaur of the school. She would have him computer literate if it took all day.

 

The sound of the bell for the end of the day came finally. There had been tears. There had been silences. There had been silent tears, shed in the toilets. But, finally, Peter Maxwell could log on, log off, register a class and retrieve emails. Sending was a little ad hoc, but, as he said, he hadn’t lost the power of speech, so he could always use the old-fashioned method of communication and yell down the corridor.

As if to prove that all was well in the world of the spoken word, the door crashed open and Mrs B entered on a waft of old cigarette smoke and ecologically friendly cleaner and the low hum of imprecations against an employer who banned both smoking and bleach. The woman was a walking stereotype.

Maxwell fell on her, if only metaphorically. ‘Mrs B. How lovely that you’re here. Clara, you’ll be off, then, I imagine. It’s been.’

The IT girl raised bleary eyes. ‘Been what?’

He ushered her to the door. ‘Nothing. Just been,’ he smiled and waved as she walked down the corridor, back to the sanity of her own world. He turned back into the room, relishing the thought of clashing intellects with Mrs B. No
one knew how old she was – rumour had it that she was the first cleaner in Robert Raikes’ first Sunday School – but she was still as wiry as she was wily and could spread the dust into different places quicker than you could say ‘Would you like a cuppa?’

‘Would you like a cuppa, Mrs B?’ Maxwell was making for the kettle and spoke over his shoulder. What he saw froze his blood. Mrs B was standing over his still-open laptop, her face alive with a mixture of lively interest and faint contempt. ‘Mrs B?’ His lips were dry and his voice a croak. ‘Cuppa?’

She raised her eyes to his and said, with a shrug of a shoulder, ‘Don’t tell me they’re still palming off this old Leptis Three on you poor bleeders? It’s not even got Intel and as for its RAM – well, Mr Maxwell, I don’t know what you’re going to do with a download speed of less than 6 megs per sec, I really don’t. They should be ashamed of themselves, them up at County Hall.’

Maxwell leant against the fridge, his world disintegrating before his eyes. He cleared his throat and tried his voice out. It came as an awed squeak. He tried his usual technique, but he only just managed it, answering each remark in its turn. ‘It seems they are. Has it not? I hardly like to think. Indeed they should.’ He really only felt confident in the last answer – County Hall should always be ashamed, for one reason or another.

Mrs B had pulled back his chair and installed herself in front of the laptop. She looked up at him. ‘Are you logged on?’

He smiled, lopsidedly. He raised his shoulders in an elaborate shrug.

She narrowed her eyes at him. ‘You don’t know, then.’ She bent to her task. ‘Let’s see. Hmmm. No, she’s logged you off. She’s a cunning one, that Nicole. She’s done it to see if you can get back on again. What a cow, eh?’ She gave a throaty chuckle. ‘You game for a laugh, Mr Maxwell?’

Maxwell looked at her fondly. She reminded him of a kind of demented, shaven ferret, but not of the horrendous team from the TV show of the same name, so for that he was grateful. He went over to the desk and stood behind her. ‘I believe I may be, Mrs B. What evil do you have in mind?’

She nudged him rather painfully, her sharp elbow digging in to a rather sensitive part of his upper thigh, but he tried not to mind. She coughed, dragging up memories of ancient ciggies from the depths of her lungs. ‘Them up in IT, they think they’re the bee’s knees, they do. They leave coffee mugs all over the place, growing fur and all sorts, and I’m supposed to clear up after them. They spend all day on bleedin’ eBay, selling county supplies as like as not and behavin’ like they own the place. Any idiot can use a computer,’ she twisted round and
winked, ‘present company excepted, o’ course, Mr Maxwell.’

He acknowledged what he chose to take as a compliment with an elegant bow.

‘So,’ she flexed her knuckles with deafening cracks, ‘what’s yer logon?

‘Hmm …’

‘You’ll be maxwep,’ she said.

‘That’s the jobbie,’ he said. ‘Sounds familiar. I have people for that sort of thing. Helen Maitland for example …’

She tapped in the letters. ‘Password?’

‘Hmmm …’

She tapped again and the home screen flashed up.

‘How did you do that?’ he asked in disbelief. ‘I didn’t tell you my password.’

‘Well,’ she said, and she looked so at home at the keyboard he could almost see the ghostly outlines of the smoke which had once wreathed her head, ‘it didn’t take much to work it out. It was either Nolan1, Jacquie1 or gallant600.’

Son. Wife. Hobby. All with that pointless number computers seemed to insist on.

Maxwell reached for a piece of paper and a pen. ‘Which was it, in the end?’

‘gallant600.’

He wrote it down. ‘Next question, Mrs B. How did you …?’

‘Easy, Mr Maxwell.’ She was being a
little
smug. ‘Most people use family names, sometimes they put a number in where it is the same as the letter or just add a one. So it could have been en, zero, one, ay, en, you see. Or jay, ay, sea, queue, you, one, ee. Do you get it?’

Maxwell was working it out on his fingers. He smiled as the light dawned. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, I do. But how did you come up with gallant600?’

‘Easy,’ she said. ‘You’ve been using that in an alphanumeric code for everything since you worked here.’

‘Mrs B,’ Maxwell said thoughtfully, ‘have you ever seen a film called
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
?’

‘Can’t say I have, Mr Maxwell. I don’t watch many films.’

He looked down at her thoughtfully. He was looking, in a clandestine manner, at the back of her neck, to see if the telltale mark was there. Then he shook himself. Of course she wasn’t a doppelgänger. She was just a woman he had known for years, who had always pushed a hoover, dropped fag ash, gossiped and moaned about everything from chewing gum under the desks to the state of the nation, where it impinged on the price of cigarettes, tea and Windolene. And now, suddenly, while he wasn’t watching, she had become a computer whizz. She knew words like RAM. Well, he corrected himself, everyone knew
words
like RAM, but
Mrs B seemed to understand it as well, in the sense of something other than a male sheep. In spite of himself, he bent his knees and looked again for the telltale mark.

‘So,’ she said, ‘now I’m in, I’m going to send Miss Smartie and all her department an email from you to show how clever you are.’

‘Absolutely, Mrs B,’ he said, lost in admiration and thought in approximately equal measure.

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