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“Almost nothing. Harry’s a vault. But he got plastered a few nights ago—which isn’t like him—and he mumbled something about kissing Beth at the last Tea Party. Went on and on about how you’d think he was a rotter now.”

Beth hadn’t told anyone what happened. Osla would have issued dismayed warnings, and Mab would have hooted, “Of course he’ll tell you he doesn’t have a real marriage. They all say that!” So Beth pushed the afternoon kiss ruthlessly behind her and focused on the avalanche of work. And during shifts, that was fine. It was after work, staring in grainy-eyed exhaustion at the ceiling over her bed, gradually drifting out of the mental spirals of code, that she wondered what would have happened if she’d let Harry keep kissing her. What would have come next, how it would have felt. One kiss had wakened her curiosity with a vengeance—she wanted to know.

“D’you fancy him?” Sheila asked bluntly.

Beth dropped her eyes, thinking despite herself of the sheer joy she’d taken in working with Harry—pushing rods and cups of coffee and Italian dictionaries back and forth, waiting in wordless impatience for the dispatch riders to bring in new traffic, the quick grin they’d exchange when the cars rolled in . . .

Ever since I watched you crack Italian Enigma, I can barely breathe around you.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Sheila said.

“It doesn’t matter.” Beth made herself say it, looking up. “I wouldn’t do—anything. Because he’s your husband.”

“Is that what’s holding you back?” Sheila took a long swallow of her pint. “Look. I’ve got someone. Harry knows; doesn’t mind a bit. We stay married for that little fellow there.” She nodded at her son, lying nose to nose with Boots at the other end of the room, and her face softened. “He’s a ruddy miracle, and I’d die for him. We both would. Our son’s the only thing we have in common. Henry Omar Darius Zarb with his university education and his fancy family full of diplomats and London bankers, and Sheila Jean McGee the former barmaid at the Eagle in Cambridge, where he used to study over a pint. It wasn’t ever any grand romance. He liked me because I didn’t call him a wog or a dago, I liked him because I thought he looked like a sheikh in a film. He did the right thing by me when I found out Christopher was coming, and he’s a grand dad, but he drives me round the bend sometimes. Him and his equations and the fact he can’t pick up his ruddy socks to save his life.” Her voice was fondly irritated; she sounded like an older sister rather than a wife. “We bump along well enough, but if he wants a fling with someone like you—well, if you want it too, have at it.”

Beth stared at her. She picked up her glass and swallowed about half the beer. “That would be immoral,” she couldn’t help saying, hearing her mother’s voice.

“Why is it immoral if it isn’t hurting anybody?” Sheila shrugged. “We keep things quiet, so nothing comes back on Christopher, and otherwise we let each other be. I’d like to see Harry happy. He’s the best friend I’ve got, and he lets me be happy—my fellow and me. Not a lot of men would do that. You’re a brainy sort, like Harry. I don’t know what you people do at BP, but it’s clearly important. He’d like a woman he could talk equations to, or whatever pillow talk is for you Cambridge sorts.”

“I didn’t go to university.”

“You’re still just like him. There’s a sort of staring-into-space thing you were doing when I saw you outside the grocer’s—Harry does it too.” Sheila shook her head. “I don’t know if you’re mixed up in the same thing he is at BP, but it’s got him wound tighter than a clock lately . . .”

It’ll be more than eighty days locked out of the U-boat traffic now, Beth thought. She knew just from passing Harry in the new-built canteen, seeing his slumped shoulders and drawn face over his supper tray, that they hadn’t cracked it.

“. . . When I caught sight of you today and wondered if you were the one he liked, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to tell you how things stood.”

“I’m not a fling,” Beth burst out. “If he wants one of those, he can pick up some tart at the cinema.”

“He probably does, now and then. I wouldn’t know.” Beth wondered how Sheila could sound that unruffled. The thought of Harry with some other woman made Beth want to spit. “Men like a bit of the old you-know,” Sheila went on, “and Harry and I don’t anymore, not since I met my Jack. So maybe he’s had a fling or two to let off tension, or maybe he hasn’t, but I can tell you this—he hasn’t fallen head over heels for anyone but you. It’s your name he’s mumbling when he’s sozzled, not anyone else’s.”

Beth sat tongue-tied all over again.

“Look.” Sheila finished her pint, pushing the glass aside. “I’m not matchmaking. If you’d rather keep your distance from married blokes, that’s fine. Probably the smarter thing, because Harry won’t ever leave Christopher and me. He broke with his posh family over us, when his dad wanted to pay me off to get it taken care of. Harry wouldn’t hear of it, and his father cut him off without a bean, and that’s why a chap named Henry Omar Darius Zarb with a First from Cambridge lives in rented digs and has holes in his jacket elbows. There was a time we were planning to separate and get a quiet divorce, once we realized it wasn’t ever going to be love between us—but then our boy got sick, and that was that. Christopher needs us both, always will, and that means Harry and I are in it to stay. I’m not ever going to have my Jack past the occasional evening he’s on leave from the RAF, and Harry won’t put you or any woman above Christopher.” A pause. “But somewhere around the edges of that, if he can find happiness, he deserves it. And if you feel like being that woman and you’re willing to keep things quiet, you’ve got my blessing.”

She rose then, holding her arms out to Christopher. “Come here and give me a hug, lad. What do you say we take some fish and chips home for supper? Your dad’ll like that.” She helped him with his braces, collected her basket, and was gone before Beth could utter more than a dazed goodbye.

Beth sat looking at her half-drunk beer. What do you want? a thought whispered.

No answer. She sighed, collected Boots, and left the pub. Walking straight out without looking, she ran smack into a statuesque bulk of flowered housedress. Before she even heard the outraged exhalation, Beth knew who it was. “Hello, Mother.”

“Bethan!” Mrs. Finch’s eyes darted over Beth’s red-sprigged dress, her shoulder-waved hair, the red T-strap pumps borrowed from Osla. “What are you doing in a pub?”

“Having a pint.” And discussing the finer points of adultery, Beth added with a certain inner smile.

“Bethan—” Mrs. Finch composed herself visibly, gripping her handbag. “You really must give up this disgraceful gadding about. Why, just yesterday . . .” Beth let her get it out of her system, leaning down to give Boots a rub. He was eyeing Mrs. Finch coldly through his shaggy brows. “. . . do you know what people at chapel are saying about you?” Beth’s mother finally finished.

“Not much,” Beth said. “Everyone smiles at me just the same. I enjoy chapel so much more now that I don’t have to go home and hold the Bible over my head for fifteen minutes because I got distracted during the sermon.” These days, Beth sat in chapel letting the hymns wash over her and thinking about the Abwehr Enigma, and she didn’t think God minded at all. Beth didn’t think God was nearly as severe as her mother made Him out to be.

Mrs. Finch took a hitching breath. “If you will come home, all will be forgiven. The prodigal daughter will be welcomed, I promise. You may even keep the dog. Isn’t that what you want?”

“I want quite a lot more than that, actually,” Beth said. One hand drifted up to her lips, and she smiled. “Goodbye, Mother.”

Chapter 38

* * *


* * *

BB has ranted before about those pin-striped sorts we’re always seeing eel their way over from London on secretive business, but they really are snakes. Braying, bottom-feeding, bombastic, web-footed cretins in homburgs, and BB will brook no quibbling with this verdict.

* * *

Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Osla spoke first, before Commander Travis could utter a word from behind his desk. “I don’t know what’s thrown a spanner in the works this time, but it wasn’t me.” Was she going to be raked over the coals every blinking time something went wrong at BP?

“Last Tuesday, you were seen in Hut 3.” Commander Travis’s voice was cold, and the expression on the man lounging against the wall behind him, fleshy and florid in a pin-striped suit, was equally icy. “Why?”

Osla had to stop and recall. “Mr. Birch had me nip over with a message. I waited for an answer.”

“Did you invite yourself inside to wait?”

“Just in the corridor. It was pelting rain—”

“It was not your business to put a toe over the threshold of any hut where you do not work. We keep things compartmentalized for a reason.”