It’s not verified, Osla told herself. It’s vicious gossip between bored men. But even in a spotty transcript with missing words, she couldn’t miss the lightheartedness, the fact that those radio operators thought it all a great joke. Even if it wasn’t true, they thought it was a perfectly decent idea.
My God, but I wish I was Mab or Beth. Or at least, sometimes Osla did. She wasn’t begging off the job she’d worked so hard to get—it was too important—but neither Mab nor Beth spoke German, so they didn’t have the burden of understanding whatever information came through their hands on duty. Osla dreamed at night of the things she translated, dreams that inevitably got muddled with the explosion at the Café de Paris. Sometimes she could wake herself before she had to watch Snakehips Johnson’s head be blown off, but more often she was bound inside the memory until the bitter end. Only it didn’t end; she just shook and wept in the bloodied rubble, and no one wrapped her in a coat that smelled like smoke and heather, and called her Ozma of Oz.
Sit down, Ozma, and let me see if you’re hurt . . .
“Who’s Ozma of Oz?” she mused aloud when she met up with Mab and Beth at shift’s end.
“What?” Mab asked, buttoning her coat.
“Never mind. Is that another letter from Francis I see poking out of your pocket, Mrs. Gray?” They climbed aboard the transport bus—the one disadvantage of their new billet was that it was eight miles away, no longer a five-minute stroll from the Park. Not that it wasn’t worth a daily bus ride just to avoid the Dread Mrs. Finch. “Are you finally getting a proper honeymoon?”
“Francis is taking me to the Lake District.”
“About bally time. Have you had a single night together, these last two months since you tied the knot?”
“Not the way our schedules clash. It’s just been the odd café dinner or tea at a railway station between shifts.” Mab’s face didn’t exactly soften at the mention of her husband—Queen Mab wasn’t the sort to go buttery around the edges—but she gave her wedding band a pleased twirl, and Osla felt a jab she couldn’t even pretend wasn’t envy.
As soon as she got home, she rang London. “Hullo, sailor.”
Philip’s voice came warmly down the line. He was staying with Lord Mountbatten until the lieutenant’s exams—Osla could hear the rustle of paper. “Burning the midnight oil?”
“Writing a letter, actually.”
“Sending love notes to some tart?” Osla teased. “I just know you fell into the arms of a hussy or two whenever your ship nipped into port.”
“Darling, that’s not something a gentleman can talk about.” Which meant, of course, that it had happened. Women had to be good, but not men out to sea halfway around the world. Unfair, but there it was.
“As long as those hussies are on the other side of the world, I can leave them be,” Osla decided. “Who’s the letter for?”
“Cousin Lilibet, and she’s still in the schoolroom, so don’t get a case of the green-eyed monster.”
“Princess Elizabeth? That cousin?”
His shrug was almost audible. “She began writing me when she was thirteen. I send her a line now and then. She’s a nice little thing.”
Every so often, it struck Osla all over again that her Philip was, in fact, a prince. She knew he was descended from Queen Victoria; she knew he sometimes visited Windsor Castle—and apparently he was posting letters to the future queen of England, whom he was allowed to call Lilibet. Still, it was difficult to reconcile the prince with the irreverent, tousle-haired naval officer who drove too fast and kissed her senseless.
“What’s on your mind, Os?”
So many things. The frustration of being tossed out of Travis’s office without a fair listen; the worry that someone really might smuggle decrypted reports out of BP. Nightmares of the Café de Paris; the horror of hearing that Jews were being murdered in eastern Europe . . . if only she could say it aloud. Philip told her so much: his mother, his dreams about Cape Matapan, his sadness at being cut off from his sisters in Germany. What could she tell him? Absolutely nothing.
How could you hope to build anything with a man, when so many of the things you had to tell him were lies?
“Nothing,” she answered brightly. “Just bored to tears out here!”
“Better bored than in danger. You’ve no idea how glad I am you’re safe in boring old Bucks.” A pause. “I love you, you know.”
Osla caught her breath. He’d never said that before, not aloud. She hadn’t, either. “I love you,” she whispered back.
So let’s make it official, Philip. The words trembled on her tongue. Run off to the registry office like Mab and Francis, make a home in hotel rooms whenever you’re on leave. Why not?
“Because princes don’t marry commoners,” Mab would have said. Sometimes Osla thought she was right—that surely there wasn’t much future for Philip and herself, even if they had been going together for more than two years. At other times she was inclined to set her jaw and challenge the odds. Philip didn’t have a kingdom to rule; he’d made his home in England like Osla; he fought for England like Osla. There was no reason he couldn’t please himself, marry whom he chose. It wasn’t as if Miss Osla Kendall were a chorus girl dancing on a bar in her garters—she’d been presented to the king and queen; she had funds from her dead father that she’d inherit when she was thirty or when she married, whichever came first. She had a job that mattered, helping save lives, and she was damned good at it. I’m good enough for Philip of Greece, Osla thought defiantly. I’m good enough for anyone.
“Are you sure nothing’s on your mind, princess?”
“Flimflam and feathers, darling. You know me.” If there was still a world left by the end of this war, there’d be time to work out what that world held for her and Philip. Today, there was only the now, and she wasn’t going to waste the now obsessing about what lay ahead. “Want to take this dizzy debutante out dancing?”
“You’re far more than a dizzy deb.”
“I’m glad someone thinks so.”
* * *
FROM BLETCHLEY BLETHERINGS, FEBRUARY 1942
* * *
Those men who slither up from London, you know the ones, with their pin-striped suits and their hints about all the secrets they know . . . why are they all such crashing bores? Ian Fleming from the Admiralty (known as the Phlegm among the many BP females he has backed into a corner) is a classic case in point: damp hands, gin fumes, slinks about like something out of a cheap spy novel. BB wonders if his Berlin equivalents are just the same . . .
* * *
Mab groused when their joint alarm went off, and Osla burrowed under her pillow with a moan, but Beth always sprang from bed early, blood humming in her veins.
“I hope you three don’t mind sharing the top room,” their new landlady had said as she welcomed them to the redbrick Queen Anne house in Aspley Guise. “I know you girls like your privacy, but I’ve already got a philosophy professor billeted in my other spare room.”
“We’ll be snug as biscuits in a tin,” Osla had reassured her as Beth stood in the middle of their new digs, bursting with happiness. A big light-filled room with two beds and a wide couch for a third; a bathroom of their own to share—no more outdoor loo!—and an overgrown lawn behind the house where the landlady promised to take Boots every day if Beth was working late, because she liked dogs. It had seemed too much to hope for, getting a decent place the three of them could share. Beth had been terrified she’d get lobbed in with new billet-mates—strange girls who would think she was odd, laugh at her absentmindedness, tap their temples with one finger when Beth said something that didn’t make sense because she was thinking about the Abwehr Enigma.
It was Giles who pulled strings and landed the three of them together. “It’s a beaut of a place,” he said of lovely, friendly Aspley Guise. “I will happily accept physical demonstrations of gratitude—” Mab and Osla had promptly kissed his cheeks, and Beth managed to give him a hug.
It wasn’t just the house. I do not have to see Mother. I do not have to see her or hear her or feel her nails in my arm. And Beth had her work—work she was getting so good at. A tricky new network had popped up at the beginning of the month, the one Dilly called the GGG after the call sign of the Abwehr office in Algeciras, which used it constantly. “Put Beth on that,” he said, standing up too quickly and steadying himself with a hand on his desk. “She’ll turn it inside out if you give her a lever, a chisel, and enough coffee. It’s all their traffic on the Strait of Gibraltar, and God knows we can’t let their spies start messing with that . . .”