Clockwell was a place of the living dead, Beth thought. The doctors might fiddle about with recreation therapy and hypnosis treatments, but the patients of the women’s ward rarely seemed to recover and go home. They stayed here: docile, drugged, fading, and gone. Bletchley Park had broken German codes, but the asylum broke human souls.
Some of the patients were mad as hatters; some suffered such violent swings of emotion they couldn’t cope with the outside world . . . but there were others, Beth had discovered over the years. The woman who had been left money her brother wanted, and he’d got her certified and locked up before she came of age to inherit it . . . The woman who had been diagnosed with nymphomania when she confessed to her new husband that she’d had a few lovers before they married . . . And the silent woman who did nothing all day, every day, but play board games. Backgammon, Go, chess with chipped queens and rooks—Beth had never played any of them before Clockwell, but she’d learned fast opposite the sharp-eyed woman who played like a grand master.
“Does the name BP mean anything to you?” Beth had asked once over a chessboard. Bletchley Park had recruited many chess players. But the woman checkmated her without responding.
This afternoon they were playing Go in the common room, a game Beth found trickier and more interesting than chess, advancing fast and vicious against each other as Beth thought about who the Bletchley Park traitor might be. The years she’d spent brooding on the question should have sanded its anguish away, but hadn’t. It was someone who worked in Dilly’s section, after all—which meant one of her friends had betrayed her.
Which? Beth looked at the Go board full of black and white stones. Three and a half years pondering the question, and she still wasn’t sure who on the Knox team had been the black stone among the white. It wasn’t her, and it wasn’t Dilly—everyone else was suspect.
“Examination time, Miss Liddell. Come along.”
Puzzled, Beth left the common room with the nurse. She hadn’t been scheduled to see the doctor that day. “What’s this for?” she asked the doctor as he examined her skull, but he only chuckled.
“Something that will make you feel much better! That mind of yours is overactive, my dear. You need a calm, untasked brain if you’re to recover.”
Untasked? Beth nearly spat. She had lived with an untasked brain the first twenty-four years of her life, a black-and-white film of an existence. She didn’t want a calmed, soothed mind; she wanted impossible work that her brain converted to the possible by the simple process of wringing itself inside out until the job was done. Every day for four years her brain had been tasked to the breaking point, and she had lived in glorious Technicolor.
“What do you mean, ‘untasked’?” she asked the doctor. He just smiled, but a certain mutter caught Beth’s ears later as she was released back into the common room.
“—glad when that one has the procedure.” A sniff from the matron whose arm Beth had burned with a cigarette. “They usually stop being troublesome after a lobotomy . . .”
The rest was lost as the woman whisked away. For the first time in weeks, the thought of Bletchley Park’s traitor was utterly wiped from Beth’s mind. Slowly, she sat down at the Go board again; her partner slid a black piece forward as though she’d never left.
“Do you know what a lobotomy is?” Beth asked, stumbling over the unfamiliar word, flesh crawling with unease.
She wasn’t expecting an answer, but the woman on the other side of the Go board raised sharp little eyes and drew one finger like a scalpel across her temple.
Mab massaged her forehead as a familiar voice drilled through the telephone, finishing-school vowels hitting her ear like crystal spikes. “What do you mean, you’re here?”
“Just biffed in from London,” Osla said. “Only arrived in York an hour ago.”
Mab’s hand dropped, making a fist in the burgundy folds of her skirt. “I told you when you rang yesterday, I don’t want to meet.” Osla’s voice out of the blue, the Vigenère square—it had all unsettled Mab badly. She’d burned the message from the madhouse, told herself to forget about it, and busied herself settling two sandy, clamoring children back home after a weekend running up and down the beach under Bamburgh Castle.
“I’m here,” Osla repeated implacably. “I know you’re hacked off about that, but we may as well meet.”
“I’m too busy,” Mab lied. “I’m putting supper on.”
She’d been in the dining room, in fact, determinedly not thinking about Beth Finch’s cipher message, planning the party she was hosting in honor of the royal wedding. A dozen friends would come in their best frocks, and they’d pooled their butter and sugar rations so they could have scones and a Bakewell tart while listening to the BBC broadcast. Mab knew her husband would laugh at the royal wedding fever, but he and the rest of the men would secretly hang on the broadcast, too. Planning the party hadn’t entirely distracted Mab from the worry of hearing Beth’s name for the first time in years, but it made for the kind of morning Mab didn’t think she’d ever stop cherishing, after having lived through a war when parties had such a desperate edge.
And now the afternoon’s peace had shattered.
“Look, I haven’t dragged myself all the way north to get snubbed like a Utility frock in a New Look Vogue spread,” Osla said. “I’ve got a room at the Grand—”
“Of course you’re at the poshest hotel in York.”
“Well, I didn’t see you volunteering your spare room with spontaneous cries of welcome so we could braid each other’s hair at night and trade secrets.”
Prickly silence fell. Mab realized she was gripping the hall table to stay upright. She knew she was overreacting, but she couldn’t help the panic bubbling in her throat. She had so thoroughly buried everything that happened at the Park, damn it—once the war was done, she’d bricked those experiences up behind a wall in her mind.
But now Osla was on the other end of the telephone, and Beth had returned through the lines of a cryptogram.
You never backed down from a fight in your life, Mab told herself. Don’t start now. So she met her own eyes in the gilt-framed mirror over the telephone, imagining she was meeting Osla’s gaze. “I don’t know what you thought coming here would accomplish.”
“That’s a bit steep, darling. You know we have to talk face-to-face about Beth.” Pause. “If she really was put in that place unfairly—”
“If she’s sane, the doctors would have released her.”
“Doctors already think normal women are potty because we have monthlies. When was the last time your doctor gave you more than an aspirin unless you had a note from your husband?”
Mab remembered giving birth to her son, how her doctor had said in the middle of her contractions that she was making too much fuss and it had been scientifically proven that labor pains could be entirely controlled by appropriate breathing. Mab had been in too much agony to rip his ears off and tell him to control that pain with appropriate breathing.
“What I’m saying,” Osla continued, “is if she’s asking us for help, after everything that happened, it means she’s absolutely dished and has no one else.”
Mab’s mouth was dry. “I have a family now. I’m not putting them at risk for a woman who betrayed me.”
“She says we betrayed her, too. And she’s not entirely wrong.”
You owe me.
“What do you think of the rest of her letter?” Mab blurted out. “Do you believe it?”
It hung unsaid: Do you believe there was a traitor at BP?
A long silence. “Bettys tea shop,” said Osla. “Tomorrow, two o’clock. We’ll talk.”
Six Years Ago
* * *
FROM BLETCHLEY BLETHERINGS, APRIL 1941
* * *
What is there to talk about but our smashing victory in the Mediterranean? Ever since our boys broke the back of the Italian navy off Cape Matapan, someone here must have reason to grin like a cat with the cream! Since we’ll never know who, let’s speculate instead if whale meat is back on the evening-shift menu at the dining hall, and which fetching BP amazon has a dinner date in London with a war poet . . .
* * *
Mab stuffed the latest installment of Bletchley Bletherings into the bin before heading off shift. Who’s writing this stuff? Even the establishment officer didn’t know who submitted the weekly anonymous gossip sheet to be pinned up on the mansion noticeboard every Friday, but Osla’s money was on Giles, and Mab was inclined to agree. “Write me up again in your illicit gossip column and I’ll skin you,” she warned him, breezing through the gates.
“Who, me?” Giles grinned. “Knock ’em dead, Queen Mab.”