Extract: A (Very) Public School Murder

Everyone’s favourite retired Abbot is back this May, pursuing a cold-blooded killer lurking in the corridors of the prestigious Stormhaven Towers.

It was their last exchange,

after fourteen years of relatively happy marriage, her words; and she’s awkward when remembering that unhappy conversation . . .

‘An issue has arisen, a serious one,’ says Jamie, head of Stormhaven Towers public school.

‘Oh?’

‘A serious issue.’

Jamie’s been here for just eighteen months and is still making his mark. It takes time. You can’t get rid of the staff you don’t want, not immediately at any rate. It takes time to winkle them out from their crevices. And then sometimes events loom up from nowhere, dangerous events that can scupper everything . . . like this one.

‘What issue?’ says Cressida, in her direct doctorly manner, as if it was probably unimportant, a crying over spilt milk. She has short boyish hair, brown with a fleck of grey, aluminium-framed glasses for reading and is working at home today, sitting on the sofa with a computer on her lap.

‘At the review weekend,’ he says, not answering her question. The issue is too raw, he doesn’t really want to speak about it – or not with Cressida at least. It’s every head’s nightmare, frankly, and has gatecrashed end-of-term proceedings with brutal force.

The review weekend, at the end of the academic year, is Jamie’s idea – a get-together with selected members of staff. What he gains from them, Cressida isn’t sure . . . she isn’t one for navel-gazing.

‘But isn’t that what these weekends are for?’ she asks, attempting some perspective. ‘For issues to arise?’

‘Of course, of course,’ he replies impatiently. He knows very well that this is precisely what these weekends are for – but surely she could be a bit more sympathetic? No wonder he doesn’t tell her anything! ‘But this one is serious – really very serious. I don’t see a solution.’

And each time he thinks of it, the scene darkens still further. If the news gets out, there’ll be dire implications for the school finances, no question. The Japanese will pull out of the summer school project, for a start – and that’ll be ‘goodbye’ to a gold mine the school can ill afford to lose. The Japanese takeover of the school the following summer holidays is funding the new dance and drama wing as well as the new science labs.

But how can the news not get out? There’s no way Jamie can keep a lid on it. Secrets have a habit of reaching the light eventually; and if cries of ‘cover-up!’ follow – well, that’s the end for the leadership . . . certainly the head. No, he’d have to go public on this one, take the hit – but stay afloat, stay honest and build slowly . . .literally.

‘You wouldn’t believe what Ferdinand has been up to,’ he says.

Though he won’t tell her.

‘Apart from being clinically dull?’ comes the reply. Ferdinand is the school chaplain and Cressida is not interested. She doesn’t look up as she speaks, continuing with her work.

Jamie paces around their large drawing room in the headmaster’s house, a short walk away from the main school buildings . . . with a walled garden for privacy. He wants her attention; he wants her to ask again what the issue is, so he can say, ‘I’m afraid I can’t say.’ Cressida says he’s like a little boy sometimes – well, which man isn’t? – and she’s been down this path before. His life is spent trying to keep some sort of balance, at least avoiding unmanageable imbalance and some terrible outbreak of excess.

‘Why don’t you just explode, Jamie, scream what you feel?’ she’d occasionally say to him.

‘Oh, I don’t think me losing my temper is going to help anyone, Cressida. What’s the point in losing my temper?’

‘It might help you – and postpone your heart attack by a few years.’

‘And anyway, there’s nothing I can’t handle here.’ That would just have to be true.

‘Balance is always the better path. No screaming necessary.’

‘The better path to where?’

And it’s harder and harder each year; harder for Jamie to achieve this balance, this is what he finds; and his body – and blood pressure – suffer in the struggle.

‘Does it need a solution?’ she says, with further disinterest as Jamie continues to prowl. His restless pacing, not uncommon, irritates her; patients at least sit still, she makes sure of that. But Jamie holds so much in, he always has; and he currently resembles a bomb in the room, detonation imminent. They used to laugh about it, make a joke of it, or she did at least . . . but not now, not these days, for the laughter between them has stopped; and Cressida can’t stand much more of this.

‘Might this mystery issue not just go away during the long summer holiday, Jamie?’ The school has just broken up for eight weeks, which leaves her a little envious . . . though Jamie claims there’s no break for him, that there’s always work to do. ‘Eight weeks and a bit of sun can change things. Nothing really matters that much in my experience.’

‘This does, dear. This matters – oh, yes!’ It was an angry ‘dear’.

‘And it’s not going away – it’s hardly got started . . . and the Japanese don’t like this sort of thing.’

‘The Japanese? I thought they must be involved in some manner.’ Cressida is well aware that the Japanese are the new moral yardstick at Stormhaven Towers . . . they’ve replaced God. If the Japanese like it, then it’s good. And if the Japanese don’t like it, it’s bad. Morality is quite simple now.

Jamie goes to his study; Cressida is proving no help at all. He needs time to think, though his thoughts don’t help. His thoughts are a loop of panic about how this will all be perceived, old fears dressed in new clothes – and no fresh thought arriving to break the loop. And yes, Cressida is busy – he knows that, as he gazes out of the window at the manicured lawns and newly planted saplings by the school gates. He shouldn’t judge her, she has her own concerns, running a successful medical practice in Church Street . . . He just wishes – he really just wishes . . .

Almost immediately, his mobile strikes up a tune, a short excerpt of Bach. Jamie brings the text onto the small screen . . . and goes pale as he reads. Where had this come from? She’d seemed fine when he last saw her! And what exactly is he to do? Well, he’ll have to go – he’ll have to go and meet with her. It may be nothing, one can’t tell – but at least it’s a different worry . . . and one requiring action, which is a relief in itself. He needs to do something.

With the decision made, he returns to the front room where Cressida is still on her laptop – healing hands punching figures onto the screen. Whatever your diagnostic skills as a GP, you have to be good with IT.

‘I need to go out,’ he says firmly.

‘OK. Urgent?’

‘Very urgent.’ Words spoken with self-importance, as if this is not a matter he can discuss with the likes of her. ‘I’ll be back soon.’

She doesn’t reply, but continues with her statistical analysis of patient footfall in the surgery. It isn’t just schools who review their practice; Cressida just prefers to do it alone – and via statistics, a truer sound than any human voice. Jamie gathers his things and wonders about a kiss before he leaves – perhaps on the top of her head, affection without intimacy. But he decides against it, she might think it odd . . . or just not notice. It is as if she doesn’t notice him sometimes.

‘A dead relationship but a functioning marriage,’ was how he’d described it to a friend, after one bottle of wine too many. But maybe this is normal for a marriage – stability of life trumping alienation of the soul; and really, he’d dug this hole for himself by choosing to marry her, so who else was there to blame? It had seemed the easiest thing to do at the time. ‘No one else to blame, Jamie!’ he’d say to himself in further self-punishment.

He pauses for a moment at the door and looks back into the room, so desirably furnished; and such warmth in the sun through the large patio window. He feels almost unbearably sad, a moment of excess which he must flee.

‘Remember when we talked, Cressida?’ he says, eyes watering. He holds his pose for a moment, before turning to leave. She doesn’t look up and he shuts the door quietly behind him. And pausing for a moment as she sits there – sunlight streaming across the cream and rose carpet, across the expensive parquet flooring – she could. Cressida could remember those days, the days when they’d talked, happier days, talking days . . . though it was a long time ago now. Their conversation had withered as their bank balance had grown.

And a little over three hours later, the body of Jamie King, headmaster of Stormhaven Towers, was found splayed on the rocks, at the foot of Stormhaven Head – at skewered rest by the white cliffs he loved to walk with rucksack and stout shoes in the holidays.

He was hardly the first unhappy soul to end it all here. But suicide – it was a shock for those left behind, the cold ripples were endless.

‘Remember when we talked, Cressida?’

Simon Parke's first novel with Marylebone House, 'A (Very) Public School Murder) is available in bookshops, and via Amazon.

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