Chapter One The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn't dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood's at all. He came in mid-term without an interview -- late May, it was, though no one would have thought it from the weather -- employed through one of the shiftier agencies specialising in supply teachers for prep schools, to hold down old Dover's teaching till someone suitable could be found. "A linguist," Thursgood told the common-room, "a temporary measure," and brushed away his forelock in self-defence. "Priddo." He gave the spelling, "P-r-i-d" -- French was not Thursgood's subject so he consulted the slip of paper -- "e-a-u-x, first name James. I think he'll do us very well till July." The staff had no difficulty in reading the signals. Jim Prideaux was a poor white of the teaching community. He belonged to the same sad bunch as the late Mrs. Loveday, who had a Persian-lamb coat and stood in for junior divinity until her cheques bounced, or the late Mr. Maltby, the pianist who had been called from choir practice to help the police with their enquiries, and as far as anyone knew was helping them to this day, for Maltby's trunk still lay in the cellar awaiting instructions. Several of the staff, but chiefly Marjoribanks, were in favour of opening that trunk. They said it contained notorious missing treasures: Aprahamian's silver-framed picture of his Lebanese mother, for instance; Best-Ingram's Swiss army penknife and Matron's watch. But Thursgood set his creaseless face resolutely against their entreaties. Only five years had passed since he had inherited the school from his father, but they had taught him already that somethings are best locked away.
Jim Prideaux arrived on a Friday in a rainstorm. The rain rolled like gun-smoke down the brown combes of the Quantocks, then raced across the empty cricket fields into the sandstone of the crumbling façades. He arrived just after lunch, driving an old red Alvis and towing a second-hand trailer that had once been blue. Early afternoons at Thursgood's are tranquil, a brief truce in the running fight of each school day. The boys are sent to rest in their dormitories, the staff sit in the common-room over coffee reading newspapers or correcting boys' work. Thursgood reads a novel to his mother. Of the whole school, therefore, only little Bill Roach actually saw Jim arrive, saw the steam belching from the Alvis's bonnet as it wheezed its way down the pitted drive, windscreen wipers going full pelt and the trailer shuddering through the puddles in pursuit.
Roach was a new boy in those days and graded dull, if not actually deficient. Thursgood's was his second prep school in two terms. He was a fat round child with asthma, and he spent large parts of his rest kneeling on the end of his bed, gazing through the window. His mother lived grandly in Bath; his father was agreed to be the richest in the school, a distinction which cost the son dear. Coming from a broken home, Roach was also a natural watcher. In Roach's observation Jim did not stop at the school buildings but continued across the sweep to the stable yard. He knew the layout of the place already. Roach decided later that he must have made a reconnaissance or studied maps. Even when he reached the yard, he didn't stop but drove straight onto the wet grass, travelling at speed to keep the momentum. Then over the hummock into the Dip, head-first and out of sight. Roach half expected the trailer to jackknife on the brink, Jim took it over so fast, but instead it just lifted its tail and disappeared like a giant rabbit into its hole.
The Dip is a piece of Thursgood folklore. It lies in a patch of wasteland between the orchard, the fruit house, and the stable yard. To look at, it is no more than a depression in the ground, grass covered, with hummocks on the northern side, each about boy height and covered in tufted thickets which in summer grow spongy. It is these hummocks that give the Dip its special virtue as a playground and also its reputation, which varies with the fantasy of each new generation of boys. They are the traces of an open-cast silver mine, says one year, and digs enthusiastically for wealth. They are a Romano-British fort, says another, and stages battles with sticks and clay missiles. To others the Dip is a bomb-crater from the war and the hummocks are seated bodies buried in the blast. The truth is more prosaic. Six years ago, and not long before his abrupt elopement with a receptionist from the Castle Hotel, Thursgood's father had launched an appeal for a swimming pool and persuaded the boys to dig a large hole with a deep and a shallow end. But the money that came in was never quite enough to finance the ambition, so it was frittered away on other schemes, such as a new projector for the art school, and a plan to grow mushrooms in the school cellars. And even, said the cruel ones, to feather a nest for certain illicit lovers when they eventually took flight to Germany, the lady's native home.
Jim was unaware of these associations. The fact remains that by sheer luck he had chosen the one corner of Thursgood's academy which, as far as Roach was concerned, was endowed with supernatural properties.
Roach waited at the window but saw nothing more. Both the Alvis and the trailer were in dead ground, and if it hadn't been for the wet red tracks across the grass he might have wondered whether he had dreamed the whole thing. But the tracks were real, so when the bell went for the end of rest he put on his rubber boots and trudged through the rain to the top of the Dip and peered down, and there was Jim dressed in an army raincoat and a quite extraordinary hat, broadbrimmed like a safari hat but hairy, with one side pinned up in a rakish piratical curl and the water running off it like a gutter.
The Alvis was in the stable yard; Roach never knew how Jim spirited it out of the Dip, but the trailer was right down there, at what should have been the deep end, bedded on platforms of weathered brick, and Jim was sitting on the step drinking from a green plastic beaker, and rubbing his right shoulder as if he had banged it on something, while the rain poured off his hat. Then the hat lifted and Roach found himself staring at an extremely fierce red face, made still fiercer by the shadow of the brim and by a brown moustache washed into fangs by the rain. The rest of the face was criss-crossed with jagged cracks, so deep and crooked that Roach concluded in another of his flashes of imaginative genius that Jim had once been very hungry in a tropical place and filled up again since. The left arm still lay across his chest, the right shoulder was still drawn high against his neck. But the whole tangled shape of him was stock-still, he was like an animal frozen against its background: a stag, thought Roach, on a hopeful impulse; something noble.
"Who the hell are you?" asked a very military voice.
"Sir, Roach, sir. I'm a new boy."
For a moment longer, the brick face surveyed Roach from the shadow of the hat. Then, to his intense relief, its features relaxed into a wolfish grin, the left hand, still clapped over the right shoulder, resumed its slow massage while at the same time he managed a long pull from the plastic beaker.
"New boy, eh?" Jim repeated into the beaker, still grinning. "Well, that's a lucky break, I will say."
Rising now, and turning his crooked back on Roach, Jim set to work on what appeared to be a detailed study of the trailer's four legs, a very critical study that involved much rocking of the suspension, and much tilting of the strangely garbed head, and the emplacement of several bricks at different angles and points. Meanwhile the spring rain was clattering down on everything: his coat, his hat, and the roof of the old trailer. And Roach noticed that throughout these manoeuvres Jim's right shoulder had not budged at all but stayed wedged high against his neck like a rock under the mackintosh. Therefore he wondered whether Jim was a sort of giant hunchback and whether all hunch backs hurt as Jim's did. And he noticed as a generality, a thing to store away, that people with bad backs take long strides; it was something to do with balance.
"New boy, eh? Well, I'm not a new boy," Jim went on, in altogether a much more friendly tone, as he pulled at a leg of the trailer. "I'm an old boy. Old as Rip van Winkle, if you want to know. Older. Got any friends?"
"No, sir," said Roach simply, in the listless tone that schoolboys always use for saying "no," leaving all positive response to their interrogators. Jim, however, made no response at all, so that Roach felt an odd stirring of kinship suddenly, and of hope.
"My other name's Bill," he said. "I was christened Bill but Mr. Thursgood calls me William."
"Bill, eh. The unpaid Bill. Anyone ever call you that?"
"Good name, anyway."
"Known a lot of Bills. They've all been good'uns."
With that, in a manner of speaking, the introduction was made. Jim did not tell Roach to go away, so Roach stayed on the brow peering downward through his rain-smeared spectacles. The bricks, he noticed with awe, were pinched from the cucumber frame. Several had been loose already and Jim must have loosened them a bit more. It seemed a wonderful thing to Roach that anyone just arrived at Thursgood's should be so self-possessed as to pinch the actual fabric of the school for his own purposes, and doubly wonderful that Jim had run a lead off the hydrant for his water, for that hydrant was the subject of a special school rule: to touch it at all was a beatable offence.
"Hey, you, Bill. You wouldn't have such a thing as a marble on you, by any chance?"
"A, sir, what, sir?" Roach asked, patting his pockets in a dazed way.
"Marble, old boy. Round glass marble, little ball. Don't boys play marbles any more? We did when I was at school."
Roach had no marble, but Aprahamian had had a whole collection flown in from Beirut. It took Roach about fifty seconds to race back to the school, secure one against the wildest undertakings, and return panting to the Dip. There he hesitated, for in his mind the Dip was already Jim's and Roach required leave to descend it. But Jim had disappeared into the trailer, so, having waited a moment, Roach stepped gingerly down the bank and offered the marble through the doorway. Jim didn't spot him at once. He was sipping from the beaker and staring out the window at the black clouds as they tore this way and that over the Quantocks. This sipping movement, Roach noticed, was actually quite difficult, for Jim could not easily swallow standing up straight; he had to tilt his whole twisted trunk backward to achieve the angle. Meanwhile the rain came on really hard again, rattling against the trailer like gravel.
"Sir," said Roach, but Jim made no move.
"Trouble with an Alvis is, no damn springs," said Jim at last, more to the window than to his visitor. "You drive along with your rump on the white line, eh? Cripple anybody." And, tilting his trunk again, he drank.
"Yes, sir," said Roach, much surprised that Jim should assume he was a driver.
Jim had taken off his hat. His sandy hair was close-cropped; there were patches where someone had gone too low with the scissors. These patches were mainly on one side, so that Roach guessed that Jim had cut the hair himself with his good arm, which made him even more lopsided.
"I brought you a marble," said Roach.
"Very good of you. Thanks, old boy." Taking the marble, he slowly rolled it round his hard, powdery palm, and Roach knew at once that he was very skillful at all sorts of things; that he was the kind of man who lived on terms with tools and objects generally. "Not level, you see, Bill," he confided, still intent upon the marble. "Skewy. Like me. Watch," and turned purposefully to the larger window. A strip of aluminium beading ran along the bottom, put there to catch the condensation. Laying the marble in it, Jim watched it roll to the end and fall on the floor.
"Skewy," he repeated. "Listing in the stern. Can't have that, can we? Hey, hey, where d'you get to, you little brute?"
The trailer was not a homey place, Roach noticed, stooping to retrieve the marble. It might have belonged to anyone, though it was scrupulously clean. A bunk, a kitchen chair, a ship's stove, a calor gas cylinder. Not even a picture of his wife, thought Roach, who had not yet met a bachelor, with the exception of Mr. Thursgood. The only personal things he could find were a webbing kit-bag hanging from the door, a set of sewing things stored beside the bunk, and a homemade shower made from a perforated biscuit tin and neatly welded to the roof. And on the table one bottle of colourless drink, gin or vodka, because that was what his father drank when Roach went to his flat for weekends in the holidays.
"East-west looks okay, but north-south is undoubtedly skewy," Jim declared, testing the other window ledge. "What are you good at, Bill?"
"I don't know, sir," said Roach woodenly.
"Got to be good at something, surely; everyone is. How about football? Are you good at football, Bill?"
"No, sir," said Roach.
"Are you a grind, then?" Jim asked carelessly, as he lowered himself with a short grunt onto the bed and took a pull from the beaker. "You don't look a grind, I must say," he added politely. "Although you're a loner."
"I don't know," Roach repeated, and moved half a pace towards the open door.
"What's your best thing, then?" He took another long sip. "Must be good at something, Bill; everyone is. My best thing was ducks and drakes. Cheers."
Now this was an unfortunate question to ask of Roach just then, for it occupied most of his waking hours. Indeed he had recently come to doubt whether he had any purpose on earth at all. In work and play he considered himself seriously inadequate; even the daily routine of the school, such as making his bed and tidying his clothes, seemed to be beyond his reach. Also he lacked piety: old Mrs. Thursgood had told him so; he screwed up his face too much at chapel. He blamed himself very much for these shortcomings, but most of all he blamed himself for the break-up of his parents' marriage, which he should have seen coming and taken steps to prevent. He even wondered whether he was more directly responsible; whether, for instance, he was abnormally wicked or divisive or slothful, and that his bad character had wrought the rift. At his last school he had tried to explain this by screaming, and feigning fits of cerebral palsy, which his aunt had. His parents conferred, as they frequently did in their reasonable way, and changed his school. Therefore this chance question, levelled at him in the cramped trailer by a creature at least halfway to divinity -- a fellow solitary, at that -- brought him suddenly very near disaster. He felt the heat charging to his face; he watched his spectacles mist over and the trailer begin to dissolve into a sea of grief. Whether Jim noticed this, Roach never knew, for suddenly he had turned his crooked back on him, moved away to the table, and was helping himself from the plastic beaker while he threw out saving phrases.
"You're a good watcher, anyway, I'll tell you that for nothing, old boy. Us singles always are -- no one to rely on, what? Nobody else spotted me. Gave me a real turn up there, parked on the horizon. Thought you were a juju man. Best watcher in the unit, Bill Roach is, I'll bet. Long as he's got his specs on. What?"
"Yes," Roach agreed gratefully, "I am."
"Well, you stay here and watch, then," Jim commanded, clapping the safari hat back on his head, "and I'll slip outside and trim the legs. Do that?"
"Where's damn marble?"
"Call out when she moves, right? North, south, whichever way she rolls. Understand?"
"Know which way's north?"
"That way," said Roach promptly, and struck out his arm at random.
"Right. Well, you call when she rolls," Jim repeated, and disappeared into the rain. A moment later, Roach felt the ground swaying under his feet and heard another roar either of pain or anger, as Jim wrestled with a recalcitrant leg.
In the course of that same summer term, the boys paid Jim the compliment of a nickname. They had several shots before they were happy. They tried "Trooper," which caught the bit of military in him, his occasional, quite harmless cursing, and his solitary rambles in the Quantocks. All the same, "Trooper" didn't stick, so they tried "Pirate" and for a while "Goulash." "Goulash" because of his taste for hot food, the smell of curries and onions and paprika that greeted them in warm puffs as they filed past the Dip on their way to evensong. "Goulash" for his perfect French, which was held to have a slushy quality. Spikely, of Five B, could imitate it to a hair: "You heard the question, Berger. What is Emile looking at?" -- a convulsive jerk of the right hand -- "Don't gawp at me, old boy, I'm not a juju man. Qu'est-ce qu'il regarde, Emile dans le tableau que tu as sous le nez? Mon cher Berger, if you do not very soon summon one lucid sentence of French, je te mettrai tout de suite à la porte, tu comprends, you beastly toad?"
But these terrible threats were never carried out, either in French or in English. In a quaint way, they actually added to the aura of gentleness which quickly surrounded him, a gentleness only possible in big men seen through the eyes of boys.
Yet "Goulash" did not satisfy them, either. It lacked the hint of strength contained. It took no account of Jim's passionate Englishness, which was the only subject where he could be relied on to waste time. Toad Spikely had only to venture one disparaging comment on the monarchy, extol the joys of some foreign country, preferably a hot one, for Jim to colour sharply and snap out a good three minutes' worth on the privilege of being born an Englishman. He knew they were teasing him but he was unable not to rise. Often he ended his homily with a rueful grin, and muttered references to red herrings, and red faces too, when certain people would have to come in for extra work and miss their football. But England was his love; when it came down to it, no one suffered for her.
"Best place in the whole damn world!" he bellowed once. "Know why? Know why, toad?"
Spikely did not, so Jim seized a crayon and drew a globe. To the west, America, he said, full of greedy fools fouling up their inheritance. To the east, China-Russia; he drew no distinction: boiler suits, prison camps, and a damn long march to nowhere. In the middle...
Finally they hit on "Rhino."
Partly this was a play on "Prideaux," partly a reference to his taste for living off the land and his appetite for physical exercise, which they noted constantly. Shivering in the shower queue first thing in the morning, they would see the Rhino pounding down Combe Lane with a rucksack on his crooked back as he returned from his morning march. Going to bed, they could glimpse his lonely shadow through the plastic roof of the fives court as the Rhino tirelessly attacked the concrete wall. And sometimes, on warm evenings, from their dormitory windows they would covertly watch him at golf, which he played with a dreadful old iron, zigzagging across the playing fields, often after reading to them from an extremely English adventure book: Biggles, Percy Westerman, or Jeffrey Farnol, grabbed haphazard from the dingy library. At each stroke they waited for the grunt as he started his backswing, and they were seldom disappointed. They kept a meticulous score. At the staff cricket match he made twenty-five before dismissing himself with a ball deliberately lofted to Spikely at square leg. "Catch, toad, catch it -- go on. Well done, Spikely, good lad -- that's what you're there for."
He was also credited, despite his taste for tolerance, with a sound understanding of the criminal mind. There were several examples of this, but the most telling occurred a few days before the end of term, when Spikely discovered in Jim's waste-basket a draft of the next day's examination paper, and rented it to candidates at five new pence a time. Several boys paid their shilling and spent an agonised night memorising answers by torchlight in their dormitories. But when the exam came round Jim presented a quite different paper.
"You can look at this one for nothing," he bellowed as he sat down. And, having hauled open his Daily Telegraph, he calmly gave himself over to the latest counsels of the juju men, which they understood to mean almost anyone with intellectual pretension, even if he wrote in the Queen's cause.
There was lastly the incident of the owl, which had a separate place in their opinion of him, since it involved death, a phenomenon to which children react variously. The weather continuing cold, Jim brought a bucket of coal to his classroom and one Wednesday lit it in the grate, and sat there with his back to the warmth, reading a dictée. First some soot fell, which he ignored; then the owl came down, a full-sized barn owl which had nested up there, no doubt, through many unswept winters and summers of Dover's rule, and was now smoked out, dazed and black from beating itself to exhaustion in the flue. It fell over the coals and collapsed in a heap on the wooden floorboard with a clatter and a scuffle, then lay like an emissary of the devil, hunched but breathing, wings stretched, staring straight out at the boys through the soot that caked its eyes. There was no one who was not frightened; even Spikely, a hero, was frightened. Except for Jim, who had in a second folded the beast together and taken it out the door without a word. They heard nothing, though they listened like stowaways, till the sound of running water from down the corridor as Jim evidently washed his hands. "He's having a pee," said Spikely, which earned a nervous laugh. But as they filed out of the classroom they discovered the owl still folded, neatly dead and awaiting burial, on top of the compost heap beside the Dip. Its neck, as the braver ones established, was snapped. Only a gamekeeper, declared Sudeley, who had one, would know how to kill an owl so well.
Among the rest of the Thursgood community, opinion regarding Jim was less unanimous. The ghost of Mr. Maltby, the pianist, died hard. Matron, siding with Bill Roach, pronounced him heroic and in need of care: it was a miracle he managed with that back. Marjoribanks said he had been run over by a bus when he was drunk. It was Marjoribanks also, at the staff match where Jim so excelled, who pointed out the sweater. Marjoribanks was not a cricketer but he had strolled down to watch with Thursgood.
"Do you think that sweater's kosher," he asked in a high, jokey voice, "or do you think he pinched it?"
"Leonard, that's very unfair," Thursgood scolded, hammering at the flanks of his Labrador. "Bite him, Ginny, bite the bad man."
By the time he reached his study, however, Thursgood's laughter had quite worn off and he became extremely nervous. Bogus Oxford men he could deal with, just as in his time he had known classics masters who had no Greek and parsons who had no divinity. Such men, confronted with proof of their deception, broke down and wept and left, or stayed on half-pay. But men who withheld genuine accomplishment -- these were a breed he had not met but he knew already that he did not like them. Having consulted the university calendar, he telephoned the agency -- a Mr. Stroll, of the house of Stroll & Medley.
"What precisely do you want to know?" Mr. Stroll asked with a dreadful sigh.
"Well, nothing precisely." Thursgood's mother was sewing at a sampler and seemed not to hear. "Merely that if one asks for a written curriculum vitae one likes it to be complete. One doesn't like gaps. Not if one pays one's fee."
At this point Thursgood found himself wondering rather wildly whether he had woken Mr. Stroll from a deep sleep to which he had now returned.
"Very patriotic bloke," Mr. Stroll observed finally.
"I did not employ him for his patriotism."
"He's been in dock," Mr. Stroll whispered on, as if through frightful draughts of cigarette smoke. "Laid up. Spinal."
"Quite so. But I assume he has not been in hospital for the whole of the last twenty-five years. Touché," he murmured to his mother, his hand over the mouthpiece, and once more it crossed his mind that Mr. Stroll had dropped off to sleep.
"You've only got him till the end of term," Mr. Stroll breathed. "If you don't fancy him, chuck him out. You asked for temporary, temporary's what you've got. You said cheap, you've got cheap."
"That's as may be," Thursgood retorted gamely. "But I've paid you a twenty-guinea fee; my father dealt with you for many years and I'm entitled to certain assurances. You've put here -- may I read it to you? -- you've put here: 'Before his injury, various overseas appointments of a commercial and prospecting nature.' Now that is hardly an enlightening description of a lifetime's employment, is it?"
At her sewing his mother nodded her agreement. "It is not," she echoed aloud.
"That's my first point. Let me go on a little."
"Not too much, darling," warned his mother.
"I happen to know he was up at Oxford in 1938. Why didn't he finish? What went wrong?"
"I seem to recall there was an interlude round about then," said Mr. Stroll after another age. "But I expect you're too young to remember it."
"He can't have been in prison all the time," said his mother after a very long silence, still without looking up from her sewing.
"He's been somewhere," said Thursgood morosely, staring across the windswept gardens towards the Dip.
All through the summer holidays, as he moved uncomfortably between one household and another, embracing and rejecting, Bill Roach fretted about Jim: whether his back was hurting; what he was doing for money now that he had no one to teach and only half a term's pay to live on; worst of all, whether he would be there when the new term began, for Bill had a feeling he could not describe that Jim lived so precariously on the world's surface that he might at any time fall off it into a void; he feared that Jim was like himself, without a natural gravity to hold him on. He rehearsed the circumstances of their first meeting, and in particular Jim's enquiry regarding friendship, and he had a holy terror that just as he had failed his parents in love, so he had failed Jim, largely owing to the disparity in their ages. And that therefore Jim had moved on and was already looking somewhere else for a companion, scanning other schools with his pale eyes. He imagined also that, like himself, Jim had had a great attachment that had failed him and that he longed to replace. But here Bill Roach's speculation met a dead end: he had no idea how adults loved each other.
There was so little he could do that was practical. He consulted a medical book and interrogated his mother about hunchbacks and he longed but did not dare to steal a bottle of his father's vodka and take it back to Thursgood's as a lure. And when at last his mother's chauffeur dropped him at the hated steps, he did not pause to say goodbye but ran for all he was worth to the top of the Dip, and there to his immeasurable joy was Jim's trailer in its same spot at the bottom, a shade dirtier than before, and a fresh patch of earth beside it, he supposed for winter vegetables. And Jim sitting on the step, grinning up at him as if he had heard Bill coming and got the grin of welcome ready before he appeared at the brink.
That same term, Jim invented a nickname for Roach. He dropped "Bill" and called him "Jumbo" instead. He gave no reason for this and Roach, as is common in the case of christenings, was in no position to object. In return, Roach appointed himself Jim's guardian; a regent-guardian was how he thought of the appointment; a stand-in replacing Jim's departed friend, whoever that friend might be.
Copyright © 1977 by David Cornwell