When his mother’s driver pulled the car up to Thursgood, Bill Roach got out and made a beeline for the Dip. However, the run he adapted for the short journey was stilted and cautious, for he was mindful of the bottle of vodka he’d stolen from his father’s liquor cabinet and the way it might knock against his books in his rucksack and betray him.
Of course, Roach had taken every precaution available to a schoolboy to make certain that he wouldn’t be caught out, including wrapping the prized bottle in an old snug jumper and placing it carefully at the bottom of the bag. He prided himself on being a watcher, but when it came to doing, he felt clumsy, unable to transfer the ease with which he watched to his hands. This irritated Roach, though he couldn’t quite put it into words why.
Jim’s caravan was still there in the Dip, although it needed a wash. Roach approached it in haste, after trespassing the bank, hesitating only when he heard a loud clatter, and then swearing - or what Roach assumed was swearing, even if he didn't recognise the swear right off. To his untrained ear, it sounded more like a disease, an outburst of unexpected anguish, so anguished that there was something serious about it, more than his usual threats. Jim swore rather freely in the classroom, leading most of the boys (Roach sometimes included) to conclude that Jim only swore for the sake of colour, to maintain a certain sense of character as their French supply teacher, and therefore it must be harmless.
Still, Roach’s ribs ached strangely in sympathy, and it was this odd twinge that made him halt his step a split second too late. A stray branch cracked beneath his foot and Roach shut his eyes tightly.
“Who’s there?” Jim bellowed from inside the caravan. A moment later, the man appeared at the door, more skew-whiff than Roach remembered and his ribs seized again. Jim looked thinner, his eyes a little glassy and there was an anxious shake to his hands that Roach saw just for a second before Jim shoved them back into the pockets of his tattered coat. In particular, Jim’s hair was more skew-whiff than Roach remembered too, it was badly shorn on one side, and Roach wondered if Jim had been cutting his hair when he’d dropped something, maybe the razor, since he would have otherwise heard the splash of the water bowl.
Roach was not a particularly self-congratulatory boy, although given time, he might have felt some pride in picking up on this detail. As it were, Jim’s dark and slightly unsteady gaze met his and Roach felt compelled to straighten his back before he answered, “...It’s, erm. It’s Roach, sir. I’m back from the holidays.”
Jim considered this, his expression still pinched. Aside from looking unkempt, Roach thought the man looked like he hadn’t had enough to eat during the break when he’d only had half a term’s pay to live on.
Finally, Jim turned to retreat inside the caravan, the motion jerky and odd, like he was some sort of marionette with tangled strings. “Come on then, Bill.” He didn’t sound particularly happy, but then, he didn’t sound unhappy either, just a bit tone deaf and empty. (And Roach knew a lot about tone deafness. He, like many other boys at Thursgood were drafted into the choir, but more than once, the choirmaster had implored Roach, Spikely and a few others not to sing.)
Hugging his rucksack to his belly and feeling the guilty weight of the vodka pressed closely to his heart, Roach summoned the courage to follow the man inside, relieved that he wasn’t being sent away.
Roach had visited his father a week before term started, and outside of his father taking him to the country club (try to) play some doubles tennis, he’d seen little of his father. Rather, he spent nearly all of his time with his father’s housekeeper, a kindly lady who spoke a foreign language more than she spoke English. In the back of Roach’s head, he thought about Latzy the assistant gardener and Jim speaking DP, and wondered if the housekeeper spoke the same kind of DP, or maybe it was another language entirely. But it wasn’t as if Roach could have paid a lot of attention to what Latzy and Jim were talking about, and the housekeeper, to Roach’s knowledge anyway, never swore.
Inside the caravan, it was as friendless and lonely, and for once, those two melancholy feelings permeated the air, overtaking its original character as simply military. Roach detected a heavy smell in the air, not quite of curry, maybe a stew, recently cooked and consumed. It occurred to him, only because his father was the same--his mood was often foul after dinner and in no immediate mood for any company.
Taking a second look around the caravan, Roach also discovered an empty bottle of vodka tucked discreetly against one wall of the caravan where it was probably meant to be inconspicuous. And then he learned that his earlier assumption about Jim having dropped a razor was indeed correct, for the razor lay there forgotten on the floor. Jim made no move towards it nor the vodka, only gesturing vaguely at Roach that he should take a seat, and Roach did, still holding his rucksack gingerly in his lap. Jim took a seat too and started rolling a cigarette, busying his hands with tobacco and paper, his haircut seemingly forgot. If Roach looked solely at the man’s hands, wonderfully clever and quick, he almost forgot the man was a cripple.
Maybe Jim forgot too.
The pilfering of the vodka from his father’s cabinet had taken great courage over nearly the whole of summer and a lot of forward planning. But now, with the odd prize of Jim’s solidified friendship so close at hand, the fact that Roach had snuck from his makeshift bedroom at a very certain hour to steal the cabinet key from its hiding place in the water closet and then to tiptoe back upstairs again now seemed like nothing at all. The vodka sat in his rucksack like a veritable lure, and yet poor Roach hadn’t the slightest idea how to broach the subject.
He opened his mouth to enquire how Jim had spent his holiday, but then thought better of it.
Jim stared blearily back at him, and then opened his mouth to speak--to send Roach away, no doubt, so that he could wallow on his own.
It was this miserable possibility that finally compelled Roach to ask, “...What was it that you were shouting before, sir?” He was not so good with languages, and he struggled to recall the word that had first drawn him to Jim’s caravan this visit. Jim actually looked somewhat interested and paused in what he was doing. Obligingly, Roach started and stumbled over the word several times before he could say the word in its entirety, “Ch-olera?” What little familiarity he had with the term gave way to the strange cadence.
Jim licked his cigarette and considered Roach’s pronouncement. Then he seemed to pass a longing glance towards the empty vodka bottle, although only for a few seconds.
Being a Watcher, and grateful to take up such a mantle once more, Roach seized the moment. He drew the unopened bottle of vodka from his rucksack, like Arthur drawing the sword from the Stone. A parable Jim might have liked, given his stringent devotion to Englishness.
Jim’s expression was unchanged for a moment. Then he said, “Where’d you get that?”
“I stole it, sir. From my father’s liquor cabinet. He’s got lots of bottles, I don’t think he’d miss one.”
Jim nodded, as if this answer satisfied them. He got up and fetched two glasses, one was dirty and one was clean. He twisted the cap and poured a generous half into the dirty glass and only a thimbleful in the clean one.
Jim grinned with one side of his mouth, a little crooked like the rest of him, but this sense of crookedness appeared to not have caused either of them any pain. He took the dirty glass in hand and raised it in salute. “It seems unfair that I take the fruits of your labour, Bill, besides, have you ever had vodka?”
Roach shook his head. He was used to smelling the stuff though, and didn’t think he would enjoy the drink off the back of that. That he imbibe seemed important to Jim, so that was something he kept to himself. Rather like Jim didn’t have to tell him not to tell the rest of the boys what they were doing. He drank some vodka, and tried not to choke.
Jim didn’t appear to notice. Or, if he did, he did Roach the great service of pretending. Cigarette forgotten, he drank in one smooth swallow, and reached to pour himself more. “Anyway, not cholera, Bill. ch-olera. See, almost beginning with an H. It’s a schoolboy swear I guess you could say.” Jim’s grin slanted, as if letting Roach in on a private joke. “I suppose that’s why I said it. That and having some Chrzan for my supper. It does wonders masking the stodge.”
Another odd word, but Roach felt encouraged by the minuscule amount of vodka in his system and now only had to say it once. “Chrzan, sir?” Besides, Jim was indulgent of such mistakes.
“Polish horseradish. Incomparable to English mustard, but I had to take what I could get then. I have no idea why I was nostalgic for it.” The man got up and fetched a jar and opened it. “Here.”
Roach had a whiff of the stuff, decided that he really didn’t hold to foreign food and tried his best not to let that show, either. Instead, he concentrated on the mystery that was Jim Prideaux, a man that so loved England would be nostalgic for Polish horseradish. He tried very hard, to think about what Jim's life, far away from the isolation of Thursgood and the Dip must have looked like.
Jim misread his expression, but possibly again on purpose, or to suit his own purposes. He said, “Try not to look so surprised. It’s not as if you don’t speak any other languages.”
Jim, if it were even possible, looked relaxed and less drunk with a glass of vodka in his hand, as if he were bolstered by the promise of more drink.
Suddenly, Roach panicked. “Erm. Je-- " It seemed to him in that absurd moment that all the French he'd learned from Jim spilled out of his head. Still, he had to try. "Je suppose que je connais un peu français?"
"Not like that you don't," Jim said, but he didn't look too disappointed. In fact, he almost looked happy to be distracted. "You forgot the subjunctive."
“Did I?” Roach tried to remember what the subjunctive was.
Jim said, “Try again. Subjunctive denotes mood, uncertainty. Are you uncertain that you speak French?”
And suddenly Jim was familiar to him again. Not this man full of strange foreign sadness, but his teacher, who was possibly disappointed in him that he forgot French over the summer term. Roach squeezed his eyes shut and thought very hard. “Je--” Again, he cleared his throat to buy time, “je suppose que je connaisse un peu français?”
“Sure,” said Jim. “But Polish isn’t like the French, Bill. Polish is the sort of thing you speak to get out of trouble. I’ve forgotten most of it. Which is probably why I’m in trouble now.”
Bill didn’t ask him what kind of trouble, and Jim seemed content not to tell him. Jim reached out to fill his glass again, and a delicate calm lingered in the air between them, something that Bill wanted desperately to preserve, even for a little while.