“Doing what? Because you’ve started coming home with oil droplets on your cuffs . . .” Mrs. Finch smiled, but there was a glint in her eye. “And then I keep finding these, of course. What on earth—”
Mab examined the square of numbers scribbled in her own handwriting. “I have no idea.” Ever since Beth had taught her and Osla how to crack a Vigenère square, they’d started using the cipher whenever leaving each other notes. A bit overelaborate, but none of them could resist: finally a way to cut out a snooping landlady and drive her mad in the process! The key was always LASSIES.
“That is your handwriting,” Mrs. Finch accused, waving the square.
“Must dash, Mrs. F!”
The late afternoon was fragrant and beautiful. By the time Mab got off shift it would be black midnight under a half-moon. They had been so lucky out here in the countryside, no bombing raids to speak of . . . last week London had endured the worst attack since the beginning of the war. Even the perpetually optimistic newspapers couldn’t make cheerful hay out of the fact that the House of Commons had been destroyed.
Coming through BP’s gates and making her way to her hut, Mab had to stand a moment outside the door before she could steel herself to face those hissing, enigmatic machines. Why haven’t I asked for a transfer? More Wrens had shipped in to service the bombes; Mab was still the only civilian assigned here. Probably because they’d forgot she was here at all. If she reminded them, she’d be back on a Typex by next week.
But she hated begging out of a job that needed doing. Even a job she hated—and bloody hell, she hated the bombe machines. Day shifts weren’t so bad; you could step outside for a welcome jolt of sunshine and suck your soul back into your lungs. But on the evening shifts the hut seemed like an airless capsule in some dark ocean, draining air and cheer away like a leech.
“Were you at the Bedford dance?” Wren Stevens asked as she and Mab received their first menu and began plugging Aggie up.
“Yes.” Mab stretched to reach a plug at the top. Her turn to be on her feet tonight, as Stevens sat at the checking machine going over Aggie’s settings. Oh, but her toes were going to ache by morning.
“I went with a fellow from Hut 7,” Stevens went on. “Ugh, he was all hands the moment we got on the dance floor.”
The men I know don’t try to put the make on. Mab could hear Osla’s voice asserting that. Lovely, clueless Osla who thought gentlemen were safe.
Gentlemen don’t try to put the make on girls like Osla, Mab thought, setting Aggie going with a deafening racket. With girls like me, they aren’t so gentlemanly. Or so safe.
Aggie clacked, and Mab heard the clack of the register at Selfridges as she rang up his purchase . . . his name was Geoffrey Irving; he read French literature at Christ’s College, and he’d come to Selfridges to buy a present for his mother. Mab, behind the counter in her black shopgirl’s dress, all of seventeen years old, had sold him a silk scarf. He’d sold her a lot of nonsense about how pretty she was.
I wasn’t pretty, she thought, looking at that gawky girl who had just hit five foot eleven and hadn’t ironed Shoreditch out of her vowels yet. I was available, and I was thrilled to get a date with a university boy. He took her to the cinema and they were kissing before the newsreel was over, his hand inside her blouse ten minutes later. He wouldn’t have tried that on Osla—what Cambridge boy wanted to be labeled NSIT among all the debutantes of London?—but he hadn’t hesitated with Mab, and she hadn’t stopped him. He had her knickers off within three weeks, in the leather backseat of his Bentley convertible, and it had been marvelous; so much for any of those stories about pain and blood the first time.
“You’re wonderful,” he’d panted afterward. “Wonderful, Mabel . . .” And they went again with hardly a pause, Mab blissfully certain she was in love. Blissfully sure that this was the start of something special, something lasting.
Especially when he said he wanted to take her for a night on the town with his friends.
Stop there, she thought, mechanically prying open a drum, tweezing two wires apart with exquisite care. Just . . . stop.
It was hard to stop, in the airless depth of the night shift. Night shift was when all Mab’s demons came out to play.
She still remembered the dress she’d bought to meet Geoffrey’s university chums. Sunshine-yellow rayon with a big red silk rose at the shoulder. She’d spent half her savings on it, certain it was the chicest thing she’d ever owned. “Very nice,” Geoffrey had said when she came tripping out to meet the Bentley, and his two friends had echoed him in identical Cambridge drawls. “How about a little joyride before the party?” They were already passing a flask back and forth when she hopped in.
Stupid girl, Mab thought, swapping out the wheel order on the drums. There wasn’t any party. The party was you.
Seventeen-year-old Mab would have sniffed that out—if they’d been Shoreditch boys like the ones who had been whistling at her legs since she was twelve. But seventeen-year-old Mab, who was already head over heels for Geoffrey, assumed that young men who read literature at Cambridge were gentlemen.
She and Geoffrey had been kissing in the backseat, the taste of brandy on his lips, when the Bentley canted to a crooked halt and one of his friends began fumbling under her skirt. She pulled back, smacking him off with a protest of “Hey—” and Geoffrey laughed. “Wait your turn,” he told his friend lazily, pulling Mab’s sleeve down and nibbling at her shoulder. “I brought her, I go first.”
Stupid, maybe, Mab thought, mechanically tweezing the wires apart on another drum. But not slow. There had been one ice-cold moment of incomprehension, looking at the boy she’d fallen for—but only that one moment. Then she’d shoved him away with all her strength, and there were hands at her back and on her breasts, and voices laughing. “You didn’t say she was such a firebrand!”
Maybe they’d thought it would be easy, that they’d each take a turn in the backseat while the other two waited their turn smoking by the bumper. But they were all drunk and Mab was taller than any of them and blazing with fear and fury. Geoffrey had a set of triple-scored scratches down each side of his face, and his friend was bent over his balls in soundless groaning; his third friend had turned around to lend a hand from the front seat, and Mab had yanked his hair so hard a handful of short strands came out in her fist. She had shrieked the whole time, cursing and snarling with rage and terror. It took all three of them to wrestle her out of the car, flailing and clawing all the way, getting another rake of her nails across Geoffrey’s neck as they dropped her in the road. Mab was on her feet in a flash, knees stinging and scraped, pulling her shoe off and gripping the sharp heel in one trembling hand. “You touch me,” she grated, shaking so hard she could barely stand, “and I will drive this through your fucking eye.”
“Walk your common little arse in your common little rayon frock back to Shoreditch, you cheap stupid slut,” Geoffrey bit off in that posh voice that had always turned her knees to butter, and the Bentley swerved off in a blare of headlights.
“Go to hell, you pathetic three-inch excuse for a man . . . ,” Mab shrieked after it, seeing the outraged white smudge of Geoffrey’s face before the car disappeared. Leaving her standing on the midnight road somewhere on the outskirts of London, no handbag or money, one shoe in her hand and the other nowhere to be seen, yellow dress torn all the way to her waist, vibrating with vast, humiliated sobs.
It had taken her four hours to walk home, limping barefoot through the streets. Three words vibrated through her with every step. Cheap stupid slut. Cheap stupid slut.
She’d walked into the kitchen on bloodied feet, every tear long sobbed out and dried on her cheeks, and she’d thanked her lucky stars Mum was asleep. Mab peeled off her ragged stockings, her torn slip, the dress she’d thought so beautiful, and chucked it all in the bin. She’d stood tall and naked in the kitchen, lighting a cigarette and smoking it all the way down with a face like stone.
That was when she decided she was done being Mabel. Mabel was young and dim and easily fooled. She was going to be Mab instead. Cool, imperious, untouchable Queen Mab.
* * *
FROM BLETCHLEY BLETHERINGS, JUNE 1941
* * *
BB spotted Dilly Knox coming to work in his pajamas again. The ladies of his section are all too brilliant to be minding their boss’s wardrobe, but surely there are any number of fashion designers twiddling their thumbs—if Mr. Hartnell and Mr. Molyneux can dress royalty and Wrens, can’t they be seconded to dress Dilly Knox? There’s a war on, after all!
* * *