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Chapter Eight

Nine words

...Come the first Monday of the new autumn term and the first of the new school year, as registration ended with the urgent ringing of the bell for the first period and the scholars headed out to their first classes, James felt a pang of envy for the elite, strolling off in a tight-knit group for their first Russian class with Henry, while he headed off all on his own in a different direction to find his consolation prize, the German class with Mr Grossart. At least, maybe he’d soon be able to write letters to Doctor Frost in German. As he mounted the stairs to the third floor in his new grey longs, his bag over his shoulder, he suddenly felt grown-up, especially when he saw the little scared-looking first years in their shorts being convoyed around in groups to their first lessons. It seemed only yesterday he’d been one of them. It was when he got to the top of the stairs and checked the number of the classroom he was looking for that he realised he’d have to go almost all the way around the entire building to get to where he had to be. Damned one-way system!

But then occurred another of those encounters that appear trivial at the time but that can have far- reaching consequences. And so it was for James on this first day of the new school year. As he hastened along the corridor obeying the rules and taking the long way round, his frustration mounted, for the period bell had stopped ringing and he knew now for sure that he’d be late for his very first German lesson. At that moment, who should appear hurrying in the opposite direction against the flow (he was a teacher, so that was all right) but Henry M. Neil, a canvas bag in one hand and a briefcase in the other, on his way to his first Russian class of the term with those elite students James had seen off in the other direction. On catching sight of James coming towards him, Henry stopped dead in his tracks, his bag and his briefcase swinging with the loss of momentum.

When he thought about it afterwards, James realised that believers in predestination would claim that Fate had arranged the meeting; believers in God would say that He had had a hand in it; those that believe in just reward for good behaviour would say that it was all down to James obeying the school’s one-way rules, while those that believed in none of the above would say that the encounter was pure chance. Whatever the case, it was one that would profoundly change James’s life. Not having seen James for some two months, Henry threw him a hearty greeting:

“Hello, James! What are you up to?”

He’d easily divined from James’s anxious expression and hurried gait that he was hot and bothered. James’s face lit up. He paused in his step.

“Hello, Sir... Ah think Ah’m lost.” He turned his head and glanced back down the corridor. “Ah’m looking for mah German class!”

Then came nine words that would entirely alter James’s future.

“Why don’t you come and learn Russian with us?” Henry said from his lofty height.

James, I am inviting you to become a member of the community of the elite. You may join the Russian class. James couldn’t believe his ears. Was it that simple? His application for Russian had been rejected. Mr Flockhart had told him so. But here was Henry throwing all of that out of the window. Henry looked at him searchingly, the question mark in his voice hanging pregnant in the air.

“Sir, Ah wanted to...” James stammered, at a loss for words. “Ah did apply for Russian... But Mr Flockhart told me Ah couldn’t do it.” He paused, daring himself to go on. “He said Ah’m not good enough, Sir.”

He looked at Henry with a mixture of hope and dread, dread that Henry would say, Yes, he was right, you aren’t good enough. But he didn’t say that.

“Don’t worry about it!” he said instead. “Just leave it to me.”

Then he smiled what James liked to call the golden smile, for when Henry smiled broadly, he revealed the gold crown he’d had fitted to his first left bicuspid by a Soviet dentist during his last visit to Moscow.

“Well, are you coming?”

And without waiting for an answer, he loped on up the corridor with his long legs and giant steps. As if in a dream, James found himself turning, then trotting after him, this time going the wrong way round the one-way system. He supposed it would be all right as long as he was with a teacher?

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