“I knew her from training in Dunbartonshire,” one of the other Wrens volunteered.
“She’s being sent home. It’s terrible.” The Wren lowered her voice. “There was a baby. She was seeing an American officer . . . supposedly she was six months along, trying to keep it hidden. Until last night. Last night she—she had it. Or something happened. And it was dead and she tried to hide it in a d-drawer—and the officers I overheard talking about it, they didn’t even care. They were just saying things about l-loose morals—”
She burst into tears. Two of the others hugged her. Mab wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly chilled despite the choking heat.
“Bloody men,” one of the Wrens spat. “She’s done in the WRNS now, and what’s going to happen to the fellow who got her in trouble?”
“He’ll be giving some other girl the same line in a week.” Mab quoted the rhyme: “‘Same old Yank, same old tune.’”
She hadn’t known Wren Bishop, but the news cast a pall over her mood. She couldn’t muster a smile on the train ride north the following morning, not until she descended in a fine mist of Lake District rain and saw Francis. He was leaning against the station wall, hat brim slanting over his brow, and when he looked up and saw her he went utterly still. Mab stood, letting him look, letting the other passengers stream around her. She’d scoured London for the hat—pale straw, with a cornflower-blue ribbon round the crown and silk netting. As close as she could find to the hat he’d described the long-ago girl choosing in a Paris shop in 1918, in the letter Mab had read about three hundred times. She’d spent a shocking amount of money on it, and she didn’t care. Mab lifted her chin, straightened the hat as if before an imaginary mirror, raised her eyebrows.
By the time he was done kissing her, the hat had fallen off and blown clear across the station. “That’s no way to treat a poetical inspiration,” Mab scolded, retrieving it.
“How did you find the exact one?” He placed it tenderly back over her hair.
“By enduring the rolled eyes of every clerk in London when they heard me ask for ‘wafty sort of netting.’ You couldn’t have been more specific in your details when you decided to fix this memory in your mind forever?” Mab slid her arm through his. “Remembering spotted netting or close-weave netting would have been a lot more helpful.”
“I stand by wafty. I know nothing about female attire. Let’s get to the hotel so I can peel you out of yours.”
I don’t deserve this, Mab thought as they tumbled into bed. I don’t deserve him. She’d always thought of being a good wife in terms of keeping a tidy house, setting a good table, warming a welcoming bed . . . how did you return this? This quiet, devastating riptide of devotion? How did you earn it?
“Mab?” Francis said in astonishment when she dragged herself out of bed in the pink light of dawn as he was pulling on his walking boots. “You don’t have to come along on my morning walks. You hate rising early, you hate getting your hair wet—”
“It’s time I learned to be a country lass,” Mab said determinedly. “Long walks in the woods, sensible shoes. I’ll love it!”
She was cursing inside before they made it out of Keswick. “There’s a lovely view up the hill quite close,” Francis said—apparently quite close meant five miles. He strode along easily, hands in his pockets, shaking off whatever cobwebs of war came in the night, so Mab did her best to struggle in silence, her hair flattening in the fine drizzle.
She was too out of breath to enjoy the view when they reached the top. It was pouring anyway, too hard to see anything but gray waves of rain gusting across Derwentwater. Francis whistled through his teeth as he looked off the rocky point over the water. The bloody man wasn’t even out of breath. “Well, it’s usually a lovely view,” he remarked.
“Spiffing,” Mab bit off, massaging her toes.
“All right, country lass.” Francis grinned. “How much did you hate this?”
“I look at a view like this,” Mab said, waving a hand at the water, the trees, the sweep of clouds, “and I want to see something paved.”
“That’s my city girl.” He slid an arm around her waist. “Maybe tomorrow morning we both stay in bed. Stow the hike.”
“At least it’s not hot.” Mab gave a half smile. “You wouldn’t believe the sweatshop my hut has turned into.” She told him the story of the Wrens’ stripping down and working in their underwear, glad she could tell him about her work, even if just a little. She’d hate to be Osla, always keeping mum with her royal suitor. Francis laughed as Mab finished, and she felt rich. He still didn’t laugh very often.
“You realize every chap at Bletchley Park will turn into a Peeping Tom once the word gets round? And when the Yanks arrive—”
Mab’s smile faded as she remembered the Yank who had supposedly got Wren Bishop into trouble.
“What’s that you just thought of?” Francis caught the flicker of her expression.
“A Wren I heard about at BP.” Leaning back against the nearest rock, her shoulder against Francis’s, Mab surprised herself by telling him. She hadn’t ever imagined talking to a husband about such things.
“Poor girl.” He shook his head. “That’s . . . ugly.”
“An old story,” Mab said. “Women get in trouble, and if the men won’t marry them, there’s only a handful of choices. Hoping for a miscarriage”—or doing something to help that along, something that might well kill you in the process—“or going off somewhere to have the baby and give it up.”
“Or going somewhere with your mother, somewhere no one knows you, and giving her name at the hospital instead of your own,” Francis said calmly. “Then going home and telling your friends and family she had the baby and you have a new little sister.”
Mab froze. For a moment she thought her heart had stopped altogether.
“Oh.” He turned, hands in his pockets, looking wry. “I wasn’t trying to give you a shock . . . I thought you’d guessed by now that I knew.”
Mab still didn’t know if her heart was beating or not. “How—” she managed to say before her throat locked.
“The first time I saw you with Lucy. The way you looked at her, just a flash when you touched her hair.”
I gave myself away, Mab thought. So much obsessive discretion over the years, and all it took was the wrong glance when someone who cared was watching.
“It didn’t shock me, Mab. I’ve heard of such things before.”
It hadn’t been till weeks after that horrible night Mab had been left by the side of the road that she’d realized Lucy was coming. By then she’d have rather been torn apart by red-hot fishhooks than ever, ever contact Geoffrey Irving again.
“It’s why the first thing you asked of me was how I felt about taking Lucy into our home,” Francis said. “I could see why it meant so much.”
“My mother—isn’t a very good mother.” Mab felt the words wrench and twist, as if they were being forged between her teeth. “She’s free with the slaps, she doesn’t care if her children run about with holes in their knickers, she’ll take Lucy out of school and send her to work as soon as she can. That’s what she did with all her children. She’s not a bad woman, just worn out and impatient. But I can’t really harangue her. Because she agreed to raise my—” Mab stopped for nearly an entire minute. She had never said the two words out loud before, had hardly ever said them in her head. From the day she’d given birth in an anonymous charity hospital and seen the baby carried out in a blanket, she’d told herself over and over, That’s my sister. That’s my sister Lucy.
“—she agreed to raise my daughter for me,” Mab whispered, and felt the tears begin to slide. “Mum didn’t have to do that. She could have tossed me out on my ear. She could have given me a few quid and told me to get rid of it. She could have told the whole neighborhood I was a slut. She called me that plenty of times, and she slapped me black and blue, but she said she wasn’t going to see her youngest dying in some back alley with a coat hanger and a bottle of gin. And then she said she guessed I wasn’t going to be her youngest after all, and by the end of the week there was a story about how she and my dad had had a weekend when he was last in town, before she kicked him out for good, and there were plans to go visit him up north with me and see if things worked out. No one really looked surprised when she was back six months later with a baby . . . Some people knew, of course, but it had all been properly explained.” Mab scrubbed at her cheeks. “So I don’t really have the right to say my mum’s not doing such a good job raising Lucy. She didn’t have to raise her at all.”