It was the winter of 1936, a cold and wet one even by Oxford standard. You almost begged off the routine gathering at the Popular (every term the crowd got more pretentious and the debates stayed mind-numbingly the same). But the chance of watching someone making a complete fool of themselves still held its charm.
The moment you saw him, it was like someone yanked open a window in a room full of smoke.
He stood out like a sore thumb. And it wasn’t just the considerable frame cramped into a rickety chair either. At first you thought he was too shy to mingle, didn’t take you long to realize it was plain disinterest. He didn’t bother to hide it like the others; who were politely nodding along at appropriate intervals. He looked as if he’d freshly wandered off the cricket field, wind-swept hair and all.
You sauntered over, one corner of your mouth quirked in greeting.
‘Yavas Lagloo,’ you said, which, in Russian, meant meeting me in the woodshed or something similar. As far as opening line went, you thought it was fitting--the main speaker that night was Khlebnikov, some academician attached to the Soviet Embassy.
‘Oh, Hullo.’ Not a trace of unease in his tone.
‘What’s your dilemma?’
‘I haven’t got one.’ He said, shrugging.
‘Then what are you doing here? If you haven’t a dilemma how did you get in?’
His face broke into a crooked grin. Wordlessly he stood up, grabbed his jacket and led the way out, confident that you would follow.
The two of you proceeded to drink everything you had stashed away in your room. Came morning, you staggered down to the parks, bleary eyed. While Jim (‘James, James Prideaux.’ You couldn’t remember at which point last night it became Jim, after the wine and before the vodka maybe) got into his running kit and did twenty laps straight. You felt exhausted just watching him, and no you would not be joining in, thank you very much.
Later you wrote a letter to Fanshawe, recommending Jim for recruitment to the circus. You surprised yourself by how much you remembered about that first meeting. It was an observation you could afford, one that wouldn’t rouse too much suspicion; Fanshawe has always been impressed by your attention to details.
There was something quite exotic about Jim, from his tanned complexion to that smooth English without a traceable accent, and indeed, his rather parentless look, born from years of travelling, picking up new languages and habits like souvenirs. He couldn’t spew out Freud or Surrealism like the rest of your classmates, but he could tell you all about Paris (or Strasbourg, or Prague): cities that never existed except through the eyes of a mischievous schoolboy, lands where he alone held the key. Not the grand statues or Comédie-Française you’ve read about, it was a world of bric-à-brac, of trap doors and winding alleyways.
You fascinated him also, he could listen to you talk for hours in the dingy dormitory; your ambitious, your dreams, the visions you’ve been brought up on, the Empire which would surely conquer and rule the world once again. In the end he would smile an inscrutable smile,
‘You were either born too early or too late, Billy.’
Your drank to that: your own untimely birth, and the reality that grated against you like a grain of sand.
He called you his very own Mephistopheles, and you supposed it was nice, thrilling even.
‘Minus the horns, obviously.’
‘Oh shut up, you know you’re just hiding them better.’
You laughed then, and took the prophecy at face value.
Back in those days you didn’t have the patience to paint. You sketched. Jim has sat for you more than once. Not his favourite past time, no, but Jim has always been indulgent when it came to you. There were still pieces of those around somewhere: a profile, a back hunched over a table, a brow creased in concentration---anonymous to an outsider, but you would have recognized the silhouette in a heartbeat.
It wasn’t that you didn’t want to draw Jim when he was running around the field with his team mates, mercilessly crushing their opponents. But that would be like attempting to capture the wind.
Jim always did snort at all the heavy-handed metaphors you preferred.
People marvelled at your quick friendship, after all you were almost polar opposites of each other: Bill the painter, polemicist; Jim the athlete, observer.
They didn’t get to see the moments when the distinction became blurred. When you listened instead of talked, and when Jim stayed still long enough to be, as you casually put in one of the letters, ‘not a total idiot’. He never was, but for all his raw talents, he had the attention span of a toddler. Throughout his college year Jim waltzed through numerous clubs and societies like a damn tourist.
‘We can’t all be geniuses like you.’ He chuckled, golden in the afternoon sun. And for a moment your hand hovered in the air, the page you were turning over forgotten.
Jim didn't kiss the way you expected…not that you'd expected anything. Not that you'd thought about it.
When he pulled away, he just looked…happy. Not smug, or shocked, or any of the emotions people should experience when they just kissed their very male friend. The pad of his thumb rubbing soothingly along your cheek.
You wondered if he’d done this before. You wondered if someone else had taught him to kiss like that; lingering, searching.
You didn’t particularly want to know.
After the training started you wondered if you’d made a mistake. If Jim would be too impulsive, too genuine. He was a wonderful actor if he wanted to be, but most of the time he couldn’t even bother.
He took to it like a duck to water, loving the action: how to spot a face among a sea of strangers, how to lose a tail, where to plunge the knife in. For some people all these were learnt, for Jim it was instinct. It was a discovery that both delighted and frightened you.
‘You could still pull out you know, the deal isn’t iron clad.’
‘And let you have all the fun?’
He had this way of speaking gently, so gently it was almost a whisper, when there were just the two of you, lying inches away from each other. So close that your eyes alone could not be trusted to take in all the details. You had to put a hand on the curve of his hip, the dip in his stomach.
"I’m serious," you said, ‘this isn’t just kid’s play.’
He shushed you and pressed his lips against your shoulder. But you’d have none of it; you’ve decided to be honest for once in your life.
‘You can never trust a soul, never tell the full truth to anyone, is that what you want? To live a lie?’
He was silent for a while,
‘I can always trust you, can’t I?’
You had no reply to that.
It was never the same after Oxford. The war regularly sent you to opposite corners of the world. You’d spend months charming and wrestling your way into elite circles, pressing your ear to the walls. He darted in and out of countries like a silent shadow, best scalphunter the circus has ever seen. The Haydon-Prideaux partnership was as much a legend as it was a myth, for how often you actually crossed paths. It could be months before you managed to steal a hasty glance over a crowd, afraid to linger for more than a second. And you realized with a twinge of panic that you were losing him piece by piece: the curve of his ear, the bridge of his nose, it was all getting vague, washed out by the snotty sailor boys, the bartenders with open shirts, the dreamy art students that frequented your bed.
Sometimes he came to you at night, uninvited. You could be having a meal, finishing a new piece of painting, and he’d materialize from thin air, not bothering with the front door. You’d shove whatever you were doing aside and go to him, pour him a drink, watching the defensive hunch of his shoulders slowly easing into something resembling content.
You didn’t talk much during these meetings, too little time and too much burden between you now. There were protocols for just opening your mouth these days.
He always kissed you before he left: it wasn’t a kiss between friends, nor was it between lovers. It was the barest brush of lips, breathed into the corner of your mouth, hardly any pressure behind it.
And it burrowed into your skin like a worm, for days after.
You resolutely did not think about him when you said yes to Karla. There was no point. This stagnant pond was suffocating you. You wanted a new world, whether he’d follow you into it this time or not.
The night when Jim showed up in your living room again, you immediately sensed something was different. Something in his fever bright eyes, the smell of dirt and fatigue clinging to his clothes.
He’d be setting off tomorrow, a new mission. He said. You coaxed him into sitting down, kept your tone light.
You frowned inwardly. As far as you knew nothing big was going down there. And yet of all people, it had to be head of scalphunters to make the trip?
‘Shouldn’t take too long, I hope.’
Jim stood up then, began pacing around the space.
‘Billy, Control has this theory…’
You relaxed back into the couch, ‘That’s all he does these days, cooped up in his cave. He’s turning into a bloody philosopher.’
Jim carried on as if you hadn’t spoken, ‘said there was a mole, right at the top of circus.’
You gave a measured laugh, not missing a beat, ‘Oh that has to be one of the best he’s come up with.’
‘He is Control.’ Jim trained his eyes on you; in this light they looked almost black, and didn’t elaborate.
You didn’t remember much about the aftermath. You were too busy screaming at people to do something, anything, get Jim back goddamn it. Give the Hungarians whatever they want.
Toby Esterhase came back from debrief, throwing a casual remark over his shoulder about how Jimmy boy was all skin and bones, but at least he started walking so that was good news.
Your mind was strangely clear---a room full of mirrors---and a crippled Jim wandered around in circles; his gaunt reflections were everywhere, everywhere, no matter how hard you tried to look away.
You didn’t seek him out after. You had a new purpose in life, and there was always your adoring crowd, the brand-new London Station to look after.
Jim didn’t fit into any of that.
For all your pride and vanity, it was surprisingly easy to admit defeat, a relief, even.
Smiley came to visit once or twice, talked to you as if he was disappointed. Funnily enough, you’ve never wanted anything from him; his trust, his approval, his wife, least of all his pity.
They would ship you off to Moscow any day now. And a certain restlessness crept over you. It wasn’t because of the new life waiting for you; you held no illusions about a hero’s welcome. Traitor was an ugly word, in whatever language. The most you could hope for was a clean start, everything cut away.
Maybe you could finally become the second rate artist you’ve always dreamt of, you mused.
Although there would be no one to come and help you hang up the canvases this time. No one to snigger at your attempt at impressionism, asking with a straight face what the hell you were trying to say with all those…lumps of colour.
No one at all.
You heard him drawing closer, his footsteps soundless on the grassy ground. But you’ve never had a problem of singling him out; from a lecture hall, across a busy street, or in the dead silence of the night.
His breathing was getting steadily erratic, and the stench of alcohol was unmistakable.
Seemed like it would be a quick goodbye after all, then.
His face came back to you at that very moment, an exact replica from his Oxford days: the high brows, the tiny crinkles at the corners of his eyes when he was happy or annoyed, the sunlight reflected off his hair.
You didn’t turn around to shatter that mirage.
Distantly you heard a sound, like a twig snapping.
And then, my poor, sweet soul. We might have to do without eternity.