Authors: Kel Richards
Also by Kel Richards
The Corpse in the Cellar
The Country House Murders
Originally published in Australia in 2015
The Floating Corpse
by Strand Publishing
First published in Great Britain in 2016
36 Causton Street
London SW1P 4ST
Copyright © Kel Richards 2015, 2016
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
eBook ISBN 978–1–910674–31–4
Midland Typesetters, Australia
THE TIME: The start of summer in 1935 (the end of Trinity term at Oxford).
THE PLACE: Nesfield Cathedral—and the Cathedral Choir School that adjoins it in the cathedral close—in the Cotswolds town of Nesfield.
‘Yarooooh! Oh crikey! Ow! Wow! Beast! Oh crumbs! Ow! Ooooooooooh!’
The voice that uttered these sounds—they could hardly be called words—was a schoolboy’s voice, and it came from around the corner of the archway in which I stood. I had just finished pinning a paper to the noticeboard inviting interested boys to submit their names to try out for the school cricket team when the cry came.
‘Beast! Oh crumbs! Oh crikey!’
I hurried in the direction of the sound to see young Stanhope of the Fourth being held in a headlock by a larger, older boy.
‘Let him go at once!’ I demanded with all the authority that the Acting English Master at Nesfield Cathedral School could muster. To my great relief the bigger boy released Stanhope from his grip. The younger boy straightened up and ran a finger around the inside of his shirt collar, presumably checking to see if his neck had been broken. He appeared to decide that it had not.
‘Come here and explain yourself,’ I said to the larger boy. As he approached I managed to put a name to this solidly built youngster with the rather bland, round face.
‘It’s Fox, isn’t it, boy?’ I said. I was still uncertain of many of the names, having been at the school for less than a term. It was a smallish cathedral choir school, but one grubby schoolboy looks pretty much like any other grubby schoolboy to an Acting English Master trying his hand at teaching for the first time.
‘Yes, sir,’ he replied.
‘Explain yourself,’ I demanded again. ‘Why were you trying to prise young Stanhope’s head from his shoulders in that way?’
‘How should I have been doing it, sir?’
The blank look on the young fathead’s face told me this was not a feeble attempt at schoolboy humour.
‘Explain yourself!’ I repeated with a sense of exasperation.
Fox’s face flushed pink with anger. ‘He asked me to steal next week’s exam paper for him, sir,’ he spluttered with indignation. ‘In fact, he said I probably already had it and would I sell him a copy? I was very offended, sir.’
Not knowing exactly how I should react to this extraordinary announcement, I stroked my chin thoughtfully and looked at both boys.
Provoked by my silence, Fox continued, ‘I’m not the School Cheat, sir—I’m the School Bully.’ Something like pride swelled his fat face as he said, ‘I never steal exam papers, sir.’
‘No, you just hurt boys who are younger and smaller than you,’ I growled accusingly.
Fox looked puzzled by this charge. Surely, his fat face seemed to say, if he was the School Bully it was his job to go around hurting younger, smaller boys.
Then I turned to the smaller boy whose name I knew was Stanhope. ‘And where exactly do you fit in?’ I asked. ‘Are you the School Bounder, or the Swot, or the Pride of the School, or the Boy Who Is Led Astray and Takes to Drink in Chapter Sixteen?’
Stanhope looked hurt that I should ask such a question, that his fame and reputation had not already reached my ears. ‘I’m the School Toff, sir,’ he replied. He was a skinny boy, short for his age, with a head of tousled fair hair and an ingrained look of vast superiority to the world around him.
‘My father is Lord Saltire, sir,’ Stanhope continued, blinking at me through large, round glasses.
‘But why on earth,’ I asked, ‘were you trying to buy next week’s exam paper?’
My question seemed to surprise him.
Stanhope explained patiently, as if speaking to the slow boy at the back of the room, ‘My pocket money has just arrived from home in the form of a generous postal order. So I thought I might as well purchase next week’s exam paper to save the trouble of studying. I thought Fox might have beaten up one of the School Cheats and taken a copy of the exam paper off him, sir.’
I found it difficult to respond to this refreshingly different approach to education, but no immediate response was required of me since Fox reacted to this explanation from Stanhope by punching the smaller boy in the arm.
‘You wotter!’ cried Stanhope, rubbing his sore limb. ‘You absolute wotter! You beast! You utter bounder you!’
‘That’s enough, both of you,’ I said firmly. ‘Now, what shall I do with you?’
Fox looked at me blankly. I had the impression that a good deal of his young life had been spent standing in front of schoolmasters who were trying to decide what to do with him. Stanhope blinked at me furiously through the round lenses of his spectacles.
‘Fox,’ I said, ‘you will write out a hundred lines of Virgil and bring them to me in my study by this time tomorrow. Now, be off with you.’
‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,’ he mumbled and shot away as quickly as he could.
‘As for you, young Stanhope—all I’m going to give you is advice. There’s no point in your being at this fine school if you purchase exam papers and cheat. You are here to learn, boy. So stop wasting our time and your father’s money. Take out your books and do the work, boy—do the work.’
Stanhope gurgled a reply that I chose to take as agreement, and I dismissed him.
His departure left the quadrangle deserted. This cobbled square was the cathedral close, and was surrounded by buildings on all four sides. Directly in front of me was the Nesfield Cathedral itself, or ‘The Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Paul’ to give it its full and official title.
Behind me was the stolid stonework of the Old School, built some centuries ago by a noble benefactor for the education of the boys of the cathedral choir. To my right these two buildings were connected by a row of terrace houses that accommodated the staff members of both the school and the cathedral, and their families.
The square was linked up and made complete by the two-storey grey stone building on my left that held the dormitory rooms for the boys who were boarders and the common rooms, along with the flat occupied by the House Master who had charge of the boarders.
At that moment the House Master himself made an appearance in the wide gateway that led from the quad to the town road.
His name was Gareth McKell, and as I looked towards the gateway, I saw him get out of the Nesfield town taxi (Geo. Weekes, prop.), pay his fare and turn and walk towards me. McKell was dressed in hiking clothes and had a rucksack slung over one shoulder and a pair of spiked rock-climbing boots, still caked with clay and mud, over the other.
As Geo. Weekes rattled away in the town taxi, I walked over to McKell—I had half an hour to kill until it was time for the Head’s afternoon tea for the staff, and killing time in conversation with McKell was as effective an execution as any other.
‘Back again, I see,’ I remarked cheerfully.
‘Ah, it’s you,’ responded McKell unwelcomingly, ‘and still pointing out the obvious.’
Somehow this man had the ability to make me feel awkward and uncomfortable—as if I had suddenly appeared in a public place in my pyjamas.
‘Just being friendly,’ I spluttered apologetically.
McKell said nothing. He stared at me for a moment, his face as blank as those vertical granite slopes he spent his spare time climbing. Then he turned his attention to counting his change. McKell was an unfriendly and untrusting soul—and he clearly did not even trust the town taxi driver to give him the right change.
‘How long were you away for?’ I asked, still making an effort at friendly conversation. ‘Three days?’
McKell started to walk along the side of the dormitory building and I fell into step beside him.
‘You were very lucky to get four days off in the middle of term,’ I remarked.
He stopped and scowled at me as if I were a caterpillar in the salad of life. As the Deputy Head and House Master of Nesfield Cathedral Choir School, he clearly regarded young and inexperienced acting masters as one of the lowest forms of animal life.
Finally he turned his scowl into words: ‘Seniority does bring certain privileges.’ Then he resumed his slow perambulation towards his flat. ‘Besides which, it was little more than a long weekend.’
‘Still, you missed the rugger match against Greyfriars,’ I said.
This, apparently, did not deserve a reply, so once again I fell into step beside him and offered another remark in my increasingly pointless efforts at friendliness.
‘This trip was about your rock climbing, I take it?’
‘Take it any way you like, Morris,’ grumbled McKell. ‘But, yes, since you seem to be so interested in my affairs—my flying visit to Austria was for a meeting of the European Rock Climbing Association.’
Silence followed this grudging concession that since I was one of the masters, not one of the boys, I had some right to engage in conversation with him.
Perhaps following this train of thought, McKell then added, ‘I am, after all, the British representative on the council of the association, and so the Head thought it right and proper for me to take a few days off—even, as you so rightly said, in the midst of term time—to attend the meeting.’
‘And did you manage to squeeze any climbing in during your brief visit?’ I asked, more out of politeness than genuine curiosity.
‘As it happens, I did,’ McKell replied with something like a hint of friendliness finally creeping in his voice, and the merest suggestion of a smile flickering over his face. ‘I, and two of the other representatives, took a couple of hours on the Saturday afternoon to do a rock face in the Innsbruck National Park not far from our hotel.’
I glanced at my watch and then said, ‘Only ten minutes until the Head’s tea.’
‘I’d better clean up then,’ said McKell, glancing over his shoulder. ‘Dr Rogers doesn’t like his guests to be late.’
He turned towards the front door of the House Master’s flat, then stopped and turned back to face me.
‘By the way—how did the rugger match go?’
‘Splendidly! A close fought game the whole way, and we snatched a win in the closing moments with a field goal. Victory by one point!’