When Polly followed Colin out of the net, it was into a very different Oxford than she had left only (from her perception) seven months before. There was still a tech at the console, and even Mr. Dunworthy, standing next to him looking anxious—for a moment, she could almost convince herself that nothing had changed. But she quickly realized that the net’s extended closure had left the entire department in disarray. Nobody seemed to know what to do with her. It took hours for the department secretary to get around to having her fill out the check-in form that was normally shoved in one’s face the moment one stepped out of the net. Polly’s belongings were in storage and her rooms had been rented to someone else seven years ago. The time travel department psychologist had returned five years ago and hadn’t been replaced—after all, there weren’t any time travellers around to be counselled.
Polly curled up in a chair in the corner of the department sitting room and shivered. Colin had left half an hour ago, mumbling something about sending Kip or Kim or something to meet her before rushing off to help sort out Mr. Dunworthy’s admission to hospital. (Something about his paperwork not being in order after being missing for a decade. One would think a hospital this close to a major history department would be able to manage historians’ idiosyncratic medical histories, but somehow they always managed to mess something up.)
Polly supposed there were all sorts of things she ought to be checking on as well—where she’d be sleeping tonight, and could she still access her bank account, to begin with—but after all the ups and downs of the previous day—of the previous months—she thought she deserved a few minutes’ rest first.
A cough woke her up. That seemed to be its intended purpose, because the coughing continued on, sounding more and more forced, but stopped abruptly when she opened her eyes. “Hi!” the cougher said. “I’m Verity, and this is Kiv.” She put an arm around her shorter friend’s shoulders and pulled her over from where she’d been contemplating one of the room’s drab message boards. “We heard you might need a hand getting back to modern life. Have you had anyone catch you up on the last decade yet?”
Polly shook her head.
“Well, there’s no need for that yet,” Kiv put in. “I thought we’d start with tea.”
There was still a tea-shop a few blocks down the road, although the sign had a new name, and even the bustling traffic that passed them looked subtly different from what she remembered (and terribly different from the 1940s automobiles she’d seen a few days prior).
“Are you the new department psychologists?” Polly asked once she’d gotten several warming sips of tea and was feeling a tad less disoriented. “I was told that there wasn’t one currently, that she’d retired.”
“The last few psychs were never very good even when we had one,” Kiv said. “When I came back, she thought it was appropriate to remind me that I’d known before I went that everybody I met was dead in my own time, and that nothing I did would have changed that, I mean, that was certainly true, but that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to say. There are more ways of making a difference for someone besides stopping them from dying, and I—” she broke off. “I’m sorry, I was forgetting myself. I’ve complained about her too many times before, and you probably don’t want to hear about it anyway.”
“You still haven’t told me who you are,” Polly reminded her. “Although I assume from your comments that you’re a historian.”
“Right,” Kiv said. “We met once when I presented in your fourth-year seminar, but that’s a long time ago for both of us. I’m Kivrin Engle. Officially, I work as a professor in the Medieval department, but unofficially, I try to make sure returning historians have the psychological support I didn’t have when I came back.”
“Not that we have any psychological training—nor even any returning historians recently,” Verity added. “And if you’d rather we left you alone, just say so. I hope we haven’t been too pushy.”
“I’m overwhelmed enough that it’s pleasant to have people telling me what I need to do,” Polly said. “Particularly when what they’re telling me to do is have tea with them at their expense.” Her new friends smiled at the light joke. “You’re a historian too, Verity?” Polly asked.
“Yes. I don’t think we ever met, as I was a few years ahead of you. My focus was popular literature of the 1930s, although now I’m actually employed as time travel consultant at Coventry Cathedral. My husband also attended Oxford—we were in the same year—but now he’s a history professor at Cambridge, the traitor.” Kiv and Polly recoiled from her in mock horror. “It’s funny,” Verity continued, “I didn’t get out of my studies nearly what I expected to get from them. I thought I’d be a single historian, maybe a few flirtations with contemps but nothing serious, devoting my life to getting to know people, discussing the latest mystery novel with them, and then coming back to the present to write about their perspective on Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers, but instead—well, life isn’t what I expected but it’s not bad at all.”
“But how did you get from there to here?” Polly said. “I can’t go back to World War II, but my life here is all in shambles since I’ve been missing for so long. What if everybody I knew has moved on? I don’t see where I’m going to go from here.”
“It sounds cliche,” Kiv said, “but the phrase ‘one step at a time’ is classic for a reason. Don’t worry about where you’ll be in a year, just focus on what you have now. The time travel department isn’t gone. We all pulled together to look for you, Merope, Mike, and Mr. Dunworthy, and we’ll still be here now that the search is ended.” She paused to think, running a hand through her straight blonde hair. “Not everyone will understand what you’ve experienced—at least that’s the way it was for me when I came back. A few knew what it was like to lose people—especially, in my case, since we’d had the flu epidemic of Christmas ‘54 while I was gone, so that loss was as fresh for some as it was for me—but it’s still a different world, and it takes time to feel at home here again. But you have plenty of time now, so there’s no need to be in a hurry.”
There was a jingle of bells at the door of the tea-shop, and a man walked in. “Ned!” Verity exclaimed with a wave. The man hurried over to their table. “This is my husband, Ned,” Verity introduced him. “He’s the Cambridge professor I mentioned earlier.”
“Nice to meet you, Miss Churchill,” Ned said, shaking the hand Polly held out to him. “Mr. Dunworthy sent me to find you. He’s doing fine, don’t worry, but he’s asking for you. I thought you’d want to know right away.”
“Oh yes, of course,” Polly said. She stood up from the table and looked around for her belongings, before recalling that of course she didn’t have any with her right now. “I’m sorry to run out on you both after you’ve been so nice,” she said.
Verity patted her on the arm. “You’re not the only person Mr. Dunworthy is important to,” she said. “We’d be disappointed if you didn’t leave right away. Please don’t worry.”
Kiv stood up, and walked Polly to the door of the tea-shop. “Look me or Verity up if you want to talk more,” she said. “We’ll be there for you whenever you need us.”