Jim couldn’t be sure what’d brought him there. Probably the same impulse that’d carried him away from Thursgood’s mid-term. A change in the weather. Spring breezes carried Jim and the Alvis and trailer to Oxford.
He left the trailer at a caravan site and drove into town, making for anywhere but college and found himself on a wooded walk along the Cherwell. He stopped and sat on a bench and looked across at Magdalen and finally considered that he might be acting irrationally. Another, louder part insisted that he was due for a walkabout. He’d been cooped up too long.
There were undergraduates in punts. One of them threatened to overturn the boat. A girl shrieked. Jim couldn’t help but smile. Life went on.
He wandered down to the Covered Market and got a sandwich wrapped in waxed paper and a cup of coffee. He took them both back outside and found another bench. He was sipping the coffee and considering unwrapping the sandwich when there was a sharp cry nearby.
He turned. An older woman had stopped beside the bench, a rolling cart abandoned by her side. She sank down beside him. She raised her hands, which curled in on themselves. “Jim,” she said. “My God. You’re hurt.”
It was Connie Sachs.
“I’m not,” he said, even as he let her grab his hands and pull him towards her. “I’m not, I’m not, it was ages ago.”
Connie cried and Jim saw at once that it was a mistake to have come here. Half the people he’d known at the Circus had some connection to the place. And there was always the possibility of running into former students.
Connie fished for a handkerchief. Jim handed his over, free of motor grease for once. She wiped her nose and smiled wetly. “You’re a dear.” She sniffed. “I knew of course, but it’s another thing to see it.”
She could see nothing. He was seated. There was nothing to give away his stiffness, his jerky walk. But maybe that’s not what Connie was talking about. Maybe what he had done had changed his very bearing, the expression on his face, the look in his eye.
Don’t be such a bloody drama queen, said a long-silenced voice in his head. Oxford had brought it back, every once-beloved tone.
Jim pushed the voice from his mind and turned to Connie. “I’m all right,” he said.
“Of course you are,” she said. She was beaming now. She had always moved so efficiently between emotional peaks. “Come have a cup of tea. You can pull my cart. It’s dashed difficult. Arthritis. If you can manage, that is?”
“I can manage,” said Jim.
They made their way, slowly, down the street. Jim wondered what the people they passed saw when they looked at the two of them. Husband and wife? Brother and sister? Old friends?
There were as many covers as there were people to deceive.
There was whiskey in the tea. Jim had forgotten this about Connie, and then he was shocked at himself for moving on, for erasing, so quickly. When he was in the Circus, and later when he was coming in from Brixton weekly for meetings with Control and Smiley, he would drop by Connie’s office for a cuppa and a slug.
Connie was obviously remembering those times as well. “You were so handsome,” said Connie. “You deserved so much better.”
He wondered how much she knew. He wondered how much of any of it she knew. Probably everything.
“Handsome doesn’t carry you very far on its own,” said Jim. “Besides, you’re a flatterer, Connie.”
She was. She’d been a flatterer and a flirt from the day Jim met her. She may have always been that way. Jim knew what that meant, because he’d seen it done before. Underneath was a person who needed to prove themselves. Connie’d had so much handed to her, and it left her wondering what she’d actually earned. She’d had to fight for her position in the Circus, which was unfair, because she was the smartest person Jim had ever met. Everything she did was deadly serious, and so she created a persona who drew people in, made them feel seen, wanted, loved. It was a mask, but it was also the truth.
Bill wore the same mask. Whatever worth his had was long ago blown to dust.
“Where are you going?” Connie asked, because she was no fool. Of course she’d know without being told that he was just passing through.
“Might travel,” said Jim. “There’s some family left in France.”
“You, leave England?” Connie pressed a hand to her heart. “Jim, are you trying to shock me into an early grave?”
“Not for good,” said Jim. “Just until I know what comes next.”
“When you find that out,” said Connie, “let me know, would you please? The future is beyond me. The past and present have always been more than enough to keep me busy.”
“I will,” said Jim.
“Listen to me, sweetheart,” said Connie. “You have a friend here. The Circus won’t hear boo from me. I’m too old and I’ve played my own hand too long to stop now.”
There was a lump in Jim’s throat. It had been heavy, heavy years since he’d last spoken to a person who really knew him.
Which reminded him.
“If only there were a way,” he began, and then stopped, because what could Connie do.
“A way?” said Connie. She sipped her tea.
“At the school where I taught, there was a boy barely hanging on.”
“You’re worried what will become of him,” said Connie.
Jim nodded. He thought of Roach, hovering, always at the periphery in the months after Jim returned from Sarratt the second time. Like a maiden aunt. Then, later, after Jim was recovered, Roach was the one in need of help. They’d each made Thursgood’s possible for the other, and now Jim had left without warning, without a goodbye.
Jim told Connie all this, and Connie nodded, and he nonsensically found himself believing that she would—could—in fact see to this.
They shared another cup of tea, and then Jim heaved himself out of his chair. “I’m off,” he said. “Parts unknown.”
“I’ve liked it there,” said Connie. “You will too.”
“It’d be nice,” said Jim. “For all I’ve called myself a loner, I’ve never bloody been alone before.”
“Must start somewhere,” said Connie. She pulled Jim forward and kissed his cheek. “Safe journey.”
Jim left. Darkness had fallen, and he found himself following the streetlamps to his old college. He stood opposite and looked. Lights in the windows, and young people inside about to make the best and worst decisions of their lives, or maybe just getting by. Maybe just living.
He’d been told there would be time for that. If Jim had learned one thing in his long, long years, it was that the time you had was the time you made.