Page 26

“Me too.” Harry had circles under his eyes and a distant, absorbed expression. Beth guessed he wasn’t seeing her much more clearly than she was seeing him. “I could do this all day and be fresh at the end. It’s just the old mortal frame that gets in the way. Pity we aren’t machines like the ones they say are in Hut 11.”

Beth nodded. The physical needs that got in the way of work had annoyed her these last two days—the need to bolt a cup of tea, the need to stretch her aching back. Irritably, she realized she was starving. “I could do this all day, too,” she found herself confessing. “All day and all night.”

“And it’s a good thing we can. It’s the most important commodity of all, isn’t it?”

“What, codes?”

“What the codes protect: information. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re fighting a war with swords, with bombers, or with sticks and stones—weapons are no good unless you know when and where to aim them.”

Hence, us. Beth smiled.

Harry glanced at his watch, looking torn. “I’ll be back in a few hours, but my hut head wants me back at my usual work, not here. I hate not seeing this through . . .”

Beth pulled herself out of the mental teleprint with an effort. “We’ll send word if we need to borrow you again. For now, go home.”

“Just long enough to take Christopher’s temperature, give him a bath, and explain again why he can’t have a puppy.” Harry grimaced. “Poor sprat, I hate disappointing him. What father doesn’t want to give his son a puppy? But with me on night shifts and his mum at the WVS canteen, it’s just not on.”

“I always wished for—”

The sound of motors came rumbling from the stable yard car park then, and Beth broke off. She and the other girls were on their feet in a flash, logjamming in the doorway, exhaustion-lidded eyes suddenly sprung wide. They nearly clawed at the saddlebags to get at the new messages, even as the dispatch riders laughed, “It’s got to be registered, ladies . . .” By the time they trooped back to their desks, Harry had gone and the wire baskets were filling up again.

A very long message came among the new arrivals, so long they all stood staring as it unrolled over Dilly’s desk. “Battle orders,” he said quietly. “Stake my pipe on it.”

They looked at each other, nine worn-out women with ink-stained fingers and no nails left to gnaw. Everyone took a section back to her desk, and then, Beth thought, they all went a little bit mad. She didn’t remember the following day and night, none of it. Only the rods sliding back and forth and her mind clicking away, looking up and realizing the sun had moved halfway down the sky or gone down altogether, then back to the rods and the clicks. It was nearly eleven at night before Dilly called a halt. “Show me what you’ve got, ladies. We’re out of time.”

Beth looked at Peggy, haunted. Peggy looked back, equally stricken. Out of time?

In dreadful silence, they collected around Dilly’s desk again, putting their bits of message together. A frizzy-haired girl named Phyllida was sobbing. “There was a whole block I couldn’t get into, not a single click—” Peggy put an arm round her.

Dilly’s hand moved at speed as he translated the decrypted lines from Italian to English—Beth could see the linguist and professor he’d once been, in the days before when he’d translated ancient Greek texts rather than military secrets. At long last, he looked up. “Not that you’re usually told details,” he said matter-of-factly, “but given the work you gels put in . . . the Italian fleet is planning a major hit on the British troop convoys in the Mediterranean.”

The stillness was absolute. Beth looked at her pencil-smudged fingers. They were trembling.

“Cruisers, submarines, planned locations, times of attack . . .” Dilly flung down his pen, shaking his head. “It’s nearly the whole battle plan. You’ve done it, ladies. You’ve done it.”

Peggy pressed a hand over her eyes. Phyllida kept crying, but in a kind of exhausted relief. Beth blinked, her mouth dry, not certain at all how to react. You’ve done it. She couldn’t take that in.

Our Beth’s not too bright . . . Pity that Finch girl is so slow . . .

“I’ll take this over.” Dilly staggered as he rose, and they all reached out to steady him. He looked exhausted, Beth realized, unshaven and unsteady after so many hours at work. More than exhausted—ill.

“I’ll take it,” Beth said.

“This needs to be transmitted on the Admiralty teleprinter straightaway,” Dilly called. “Dear God, let Cunningham not muck it up . . .”

Beth went out into the dark, not realizing until she felt water on her face that it was pouring rain. She didn’t feel the cold or the raindrops; her feet flew as she ran under the clock tower along the path, battle plans in hand. She didn’t know where the Admiralty teleprinter was, so she sprinted to the mansion and with both hands heaved the double doors open. The night shift looked up as Beth Finch blew into the hall on a black gust of rain, hair plastered to her face, grim as death, holding the Cottage’s precious work. Her work.

“Get the watchkeeper,” said Beth, giving the first direct order of her life. “Get the watchkeeper now.”

SHE DIDN’T GO back to the Cottage for her coat and handbag. She had her BP pass in her pocket, and she stumbled straight from the mansion to the Park gate and out, down the pitch-dark road through the rain. Exhaustion crashed through her in waves, battering ocean swells like those long Mediterranean rollers pushing all those Italian subs and cruisers through the night as they aimed for those precious British ships . . . but it was someone else’s job to think about them. Admiral Whoever. She couldn’t remember his name. She couldn’t remember anything that didn’t come in five-letter blocks.

The sound of a whimper came quietly through the dark. Beth barely heard it, but her feet paused. She felt her way forward in the rain, toward the chemist’s shop—long shut up of course; it had to be near midnight. The whimper sounded again from the shop steps. She crouched down, peering through her soaked hair, and realized the small huddled bundle was a dog.

Beth stared at it, exhausted. It glared back, shivering, showing its teeth feebly.

It tried to bite when she lurched forward and picked it up. Beth ignored that, feeling the animal’s shuddering bony ribs against her arm. The rain was coming down harder, and she turned to trudge the last dark quarter mile to her house.

A light burned in the Finch kitchen. Beth’s mother was sitting at the table in her dressing gown, hands folded round a cup of Ovaltine, Bible at her side. When Beth squelched through the kitchen door, Mrs. Finch burst into tears. “There you are—three days with no word! I—” She brought herself up short, seeing the bundle in Beth’s arms. “What’s that?”

Beth, still numb, tugged a pristine stack of towels from the drawer and began rubbing the dog down. A schnauzer, she saw as the gray fur began to stand out in drying tufts.

“My good towels—that thing is sure to have fleas—” Mrs. Finch floundered. “Get it out of here!”

Beth opened the icebox. Inside was a plate with a slice of Woolton pie, probably her supper. She put it on the floor and, in a remote stupor, watched the half-starved schnauzer attack it. He had a little square head and a wiry beard like a tiny kaiser, and he kept glaring around him even as he wolfed down the pie.

“That animal is not eating off the second-best china!” Mrs. Finch looked more shocked than Beth had ever seen her in her life. She reached for her Bible as if it were a lifeline. “This lack of respect, Bethan—‘The eye that mocks a father and scorns a mother . . .’”

Proverbs, Beth thought. Mrs. Finch held the book out, but for the first time in her life Beth didn’t take it. She was too tired to hold the Bible in front of her until her arms trembled and her mother’s rage was mollified. She just could not do it. With one indifferent hand she pushed the book away and stood watching the dog clean the plate. Mrs. Finch’s mouth opened and closed, saying something, but Beth couldn’t listen. Her mother’s dutiful little helpmeet wasn’t here, wasn’t back yet from three days sunk in Enigma. Tomorrow, she’d apologize.

Or maybe she wouldn’t.

“—and that dog is not staying!” her mother concluded in a stifled shriek. “You put it out right now!”

“No,” said Beth.

She picked up the not-noticeably-grateful schnauzer and lugged him up the stairs past Osla and Mab, who were eavesdropping wide-eyed on the landing, and into her bedroom. She made a nest of blankets for him, observing without much interest that he did, in fact, have fleas. Then Beth and her new dog slept like the dead.

Eleven Days Until the Royal Wedding

November 9, 1947

Chapter 18

Inside the Clock