“No, because you didn’t grow up wrapped in cotton wool like a china doll.” Osla realized she had utterly derailed the conversation from Beth and Harry and the conundrum of married men, but who knew when a chance like this would come again? “What happens?”
There was a short, embarrassed silence. Boots broke it with a yelp, because the scarlet-faced Beth was twisting her fingers through his collar. Mab looked between Osla and Beth and shook her head. “We need a drink for this.”
“Where’d you get that?” Beth blurted as Mab rummaged in her handbag and brought out a silver flask.
“Nicked it off Giles. He’ll never miss it.” Mab swigged; Osla swigged. Beth hesitated, but as soon as Mab said, “All right, when a man’s trousers come off . . . ,” she reached for the flask and gulped till she choked. Osla pounded Beth on the back, and the two of them listened, cringing, to Mab’s brief, blunt lecture.
“There are things you’ll hear,” she finished. “Anyone who says you can’t get knocked up if it’s your first time—wrong. Anyone who says you can’t get knocked up if a man pulls away at the end—also wrong. The only thing that stops you getting knocked up is if a man wears a French letter”—a brief explanation of what that was; Osla and Beth made faces—“or if you get a doctor to fit you for a little rubber device you push up inside.” She mimed. “But no doctor will give you that until you’re married or at least engaged, because doctors are men. And if a man promises he’ll marry you if you do it with him, that’s the lie that’s been told since Adam and Eve.”
“Well,” Osla said at last. “I can’t say I’m tempted to do it at all.” It sounded perfectly horrid.
“Is it . . . nice?” Beth was nearly inaudible with embarrassment.
“I thought so.” Mab’s voice was carefully toneless. “Very nice. But I was only seventeen, so what did I know?”
“. . . Who was he?” Osla asked.
“A fellow I shouldn’t have listened to.” Mab took another swallow of Giles’s gin. “So is your Philip prompting this desire for information? Or is someone new putting the make on you?”
“Oh, the men I know don’t try to put the make on. Maybe a kiss after a date, but that’s all, or they’re on the NSIT list.”
“NSIT?” Beth said.
“Not Safe In Taxis.”
“But you want this information for a reason.” Mab refused to be deflected. “Come on, Os. You’ve told us all about your Philip being on the Valiant, and how his eyes are blue-gray and give you spasms—now give us the goods!”
Somehow that cracked the tension—Osla laughed, Mab grinned, and an almost invisible smile escaped Beth. “I adore Philip,” Osla confessed, “and I haven’t heard anything from him since Matapan, so—what?” Beth had frozen at the word Matapan.
“Nothing.” Beth took another sip from the flask, looking poker-faced.
“And when he comes back from Matapan, do you think you’re getting an offer to become Mrs. Philip—” Mab paused. “You know, I don’t think you’ve told us his last name.”
“Because he doesn’t really have one.” Osla cleared her throat. “He’s, well, he’s Prince Philip of Greece.”
She looked up. Mab’s eyebrows had lofted clear to her hairline, and the flask in Beth’s hand hovered half-lowered.
“A bloody prince,” Mab told Beth. “Of course. And a foreign prince!”
“Not really. He’s Danish and German, but he went to school in Scotland and his uncle is Lord Mountbatten . . . it’s complicated. The family left Greece when he was a baby. He’s not heir to the throne.”
“Good,” drawled Mab, “because it would be funny if I’d just given the facts of life to the future Queen Osla.”
“Shut up!” Osla smacked her with a pillow. “This is exactly why I didn’t mention it, because you’d start talking drip, and he’s not like that. He’s just my Philip.”
Mab took the flask from Beth, turning it upside down. “Not nearly enough gin for this discussion.”
Beth actually laughed aloud. Her cheeks had faded from humiliated red to a rosy pink; she looked positively pretty. Osla wondered if Harry thought so, too. “Look, Beth, about Harry. I like him, so I want to think he wasn’t laying a line on you. But be careful.”
Beth wrinkled her nose. “Someone married—I couldn’t.” She glanced at the candle stub; it was down to the last half inch of wax. “I’d better get to bed.”
She tucked Boots under her arm and padded out. Mab looked at Osla, waiting until they heard the other bedroom door click. “I worry about Beth,” she said bluntly. “Shy girls like her are just the sort to fall into the wrong man’s arms and get in trouble.”
“I think the appeal of someone like Harry is that he’s unattainable,” Osla mused, sliding between her sheets. “He’s a topping good crush for a girl who doesn’t actually want to step out of the shadows. I can see Beth as a ninety-year-old virgin, breaking codes and living alone with her dog, happy as a clam. A lover or a husband would break that up.”
“The end of war will break that up. Who’s going to be asking Beth Finch to break codes then? She’ll be a spinster at home again.” Mab blew out the candle. “God help her.”
“Things will be different after the war.” Osla stared up into the darkness over her bed. “They have to be. Or else what’s it all for?”
“Some things never change.” Mab’s voice came through the dark, suddenly serious. “Listen, Os . . . you might know a bit more biology now, but that doesn’t mean you know other things.”
Osla stiffened. “What do you mean by that?”
“You don’t know how men sometimes use women.” A long exhalation. “How they use and then leave women they never intended to marry. Nice boys do that. Gentlemen do that. Even princes.”
* * *
FROM BLETCHLEY BLETHERINGS, MAY 1941
* * *
Goodness, who knew that the head of naval section once trod the boards in London pantomimes? Apparently his “Widow Twankey” was a smasher. The things men keep from us; how can we ever truly know them . . .
* * *
Miss Churt.” Francis Gray’s warm, courteous voice crackled over the line. “I thought you might enjoy dinner at the Savoy your next evening off.”
Mab smiled, waving Osla on ahead—they were both leaving for the evening shift. “Will the food be electric yellow?”
“Dover sole is guaranteed. Nice white food, completely without flavor. Very English.”
“I’m off Tuesday next—I’m going to Sheffield to see my sister, but I’ll take the evening train to London after.”
“I look forward to it, Miss Churt. Wear sky-scraping shoes.”
He rang off, and Mab’s smile slid to a thoughtful frown. This would make her third date with her poet—after the Indian supper at Veeraswamy, he’d invited her to a lunchtime concert at the National Gallery, where she’d heard some deeply inexplicable music—and he still puzzled her exceedingly. He barely spoke but listened attentively; he smiled a good deal but never laughed. He didn’t press to use her first name—he didn’t press for anything, as a matter of fact. Mab found Francis Gray something of a mystery.
“Is he on your short list?” Giles had asked after the Mad Hatters discussed Francis’s unsettling war poetry.
“I don’t think so.” Mab knew when a man was keen, and Francis Gray didn’t seem to be. He regarded everything—an air-raid alarm, a bowl of Mulligatawny soup, Mab in her berry-colored frock—with the same pleasant remoteness, like he sat friendly and removed behind an invisible curtain. She found herself rereading Mired from cover to cover, looking for clues to how his mind worked, but all the poetry told her was that he’d been a scared boy who tried to get rid of his trench nightmares by putting them in verse. He wasn’t that boy anymore, so who was he?
“Bump him up your list,” Giles had advised. “He’s a catch. Parents dead, so no interfering mother-in-law. Owns a good-sized house in Coventry. No millionaire—nobody ever made a packet off poetry—but his father patented some cough medicine that’s done rather well. More than enough to keep you in silk stockings and your little sister in ponies.”
“I know all that.” Mab always vetted her dates thoroughly. “But I’m not just after silk stockings and ponies, Giles.”
“I want someone to be contented with.” She didn’t ask for grand romance, but she did want contentment . . . and Mab didn’t think anyone as disinterested in life as Francis Gray had it in him to be content. He was a puzzle, all right; her very own enigma in a park full of them.
“I really do not approve of men telephoning.” Mrs. Finch appeared in the hallway the minute Mab replaced the handset. “Unless they are family.”
“He’s my cousin.”
“You seem to have a great many cousins.”
“Big family! If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a long evening shift ahead—”