Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré
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 for all 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 some things 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 facades. He arrived just after lunch, driving an old red Alvis and towing a second-hand caravan that had once been blue. Early afternoons at Thursgood’s are a tranquil time, 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’ bonnet as it wheezed its way down the pitted drive, windscreen wipers going full pelt and the caravan 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 on to 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 caravan to jack-knife 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 waste land between the orchard, the fruithouse 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.
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