“But you want more for Lucy.” Francis was listening with every drop of concentration in him, leaning against the rock, his shoulder pressing Mab’s.
“Everything I made myself into, I had to fight to do. The books, the clothes, the secretarial course, all of it. With Mum and everyone else saying I was an uppity bitch. I don’t want that for Luce. I want her to go to school, a proper school where she gets to play hockey in a clean gym slip and learn maths. I want her to have the kind of vowels I had to teach myself by eavesdropping on university students. I want her to have little shiny riding boots and a pony.”
Francis put his arms around her. Mab sagged against him, raw to the core. “Please,” she heard herself beg—tough-shelled Mabel from Shoreditch, who never begged anyone for anything, suddenly needing reassurance more than she needed air. “Please tell me what you’re thinking.” Please tell me I won’t lose you over this.
“I’m thinking”—he pulled back, tugged a strand of wet hair off her cheek—“that my blasted office is sending me to Scotland for a few months, but that when I get back, you should bring Lucy to Coventry so we can show her her future home. Including where the pony will live.”
Then he held Mab quietly as she clung to him. Blinking over his shoulder, she saw the rain clouds had rolled back from Derwentwater. The lake had turned a sudden, spectacular blue and the fields around it exploded like green and gold velvet under a sudden drenching of sunshine. “You’re right,” she choked. “It’s a lovely view.”
* * *
FROM BLETCHLEY BLETHERINGS, JUNE 1942
* * *
This fine summer weather means romance, judging from the number of BP engagements rumored! What the huts and night shifts hath joined together, let no one put asunder . . .
* * *
Two weeks after the conversation with Sheila Zarb, Beth became a thief.
“Beth Finch.” Giles’s voice hovered somewhere between amused and offended. “Are you actually rummaging in my wallet?”
“No. Yes.” Beth could feel the things she’d taken, nearly burning a hole in her pocket. She’d just managed to ease Giles’s wallet back into his jacket where it hung over his chair—a much easier job in the large, crowded new-built canteen than it would have been in the old mansion dining room—but he’d ambled back with his tray faster than anticipated. “I needed something . . . I didn’t steal! I left you two shillings in place.”
“I don’t really fancy anyone taking a poke in my wallet who isn’t me.” He dumped his tray on the table. “What did you need so badly?”
“I—” Beth couldn’t say another word. It was four in the morning and the canteen was full of tired people jostling for plates of corned beef and prunes. Beth ducked her head, avoiding his eyes. “I—can’t say.”
Giles went through his wallet. His brows rose. “Well. I’m plus two shillings and minus two—”
“Pleasedon’tsayit.” Beth squeezed her eyes shut in agony. “Please, Giles.”
He sat back in his chair with a grin. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
She fled before he could make any more jokes.
“Beth?” Harry stopped in surprise, coming out of Hut 8 five hours later. Beth had been wondering what to do if he worked a double, but here he was, rumpled and tired looking, shrugging into his jacket.
“You’re off shift?” Of course he was, it was nine sharp and people were streaming into the bright summer morning toward the gates, but so much of ordinary conversation seemed to be about stating the obvious. How did anyone stand it? “Where are you off to?”
She’d been expecting him to say “home” and she had an answer for that, but he surprised her. “Hopping the train to Cambridge for the day. Sheila’s already there, visiting her parents with Christopher—it’s better if I don’t go with them, so I’ll loaf about until afternoon and then bring them home.”
“Why can’t you visit her parents?”
Someone jostled past Harry; he moved to one side near the brick half wall erected to shield the hut from bomb raids. “Once her dad is two pints in, he’ll start making digs at me, and her mum always frets about how dark Christopher turned out and argues about me teaching him Arabic.” Harry’s face was taut.
“I don’t see Sheila putting up with that.”
“She gives them hell. But Christopher cries, and—” Harry broke off. “How do you know what Sheila would or wouldn’t do?”
“We met again a few weeks back”—Beth looked down at her handbag—“and talked.”
“. . . About what?”
Beth couldn’t manage the answer. “You’re off to the train station then?”
She took a breath. Let the breath out. “I’ve never been to Cambridge.”
He looked at her then, exhausted, direct. “D’you want to come?”
THEY DIDN’T SPEAK on the station platform, or on the train. Harry angled his big body in the crushing crowd so Beth had a bit of space, and then stood silent, expression abstracted. Beth knew the look, having seen it in the mirror often enough. She was still fighting off the code’s mesmeric hold herself, and she’d had a good shift’s work, hard concentration giving way to clean, decrypted script. She hadn’t spent hours banging her head against an impenetrable wall. In the cramped space between them she raised her hand, flashed five fingers rapidly like a cluster of Enigma traffic, and then swirled them like a whirlpool, letting her eyes cross. Harry nodded, lids lifted briefly as he grinned. As she dropped her hand back to her side, the backs of their fingers brushed together with the swaying of the train. Beth stood quietly, focusing on the haphazard touch.
They got off at Cambridge, Harry taking her hand quite naturally, pulling her through the crush on the platform. He didn’t drop it, and she didn’t tug away. She saw spires and golden-stoned buildings; a city half-medieval and utterly untouched by bombing—she couldn’t help turning her eyes everywhere, astounded.
“Cambridge is lovelier than Oxford,” Harry said. “Don’t let any of the Oxford blokes tell you different.”
Beth didn’t see how anything could be lovelier than this. They meandered, Harry pointing out his favorite spots: “There’s the Eagle, best pub in town; I used to work proofs over a pint in the evenings . . . the tower there marks Caius College—my cousin Maurice dared me to climb the roof at night and make the Senate House leap across the lane below. Maurice got recruited to BP too, you know—I had no idea, till I saw him flashing his pass at the gate . . .” Cambridge wasn’t as intimidating as London but was much bigger than Bletchley. And not a soul here knows me. All her life Beth had lived in a glass bowl where she couldn’t cross the road without meeting five people who called out her name.
Harry bought a packet of ersatz meat-paste sandwiches, and they ate on the grass in a loop of the river. He sat with his knees up, shoulders giving an irregular hitch now and then, and a lingering fear flashed in Beth—breakdown. Like poor Peggy, who had returned from bed rest pale faced and elusive about her time away. “You’re not going crazy, Harry.” Beth said it blunt and direct.
“It feels like it.” He looked at her, speaking equally bluntly. “What did Sheila tell you?”
Beth had hoped she could get through this without blushing, but she might as well have wished for the moon. “About someone she sees . . . Someone you don’t mind about.”
“I’ve never met him.” Harry tossed a crust into the river. “But I hope he’s head over heels for her.”
“You—really don’t mind?”
“She should be happy while she can.” Harry shook his head. “She fell for a flier . . . if he lives through the war it’ll be a miracle.”
“So . . .” Beth couldn’t finish the sentence or her sandwich.
He looked at her straight. “This is all I’ve got to offer you: the occasional afternoon. Because I’m not leaving Sheila or my son. Wouldn’t you rather be off with some fellow who can take you to meet his parents, give you a ring someday?”
“No.” Mab seemed to love being married, and clearly Osla wanted to be, but Beth didn’t feel that tug. She’d just got out of a household that felt like a prison; the thought of starting things up with a man who might trap her in another household someday made her want to scratch and howl. Beth wanted the life she already had, only—
“Why are you here?” Harry asked, low voiced.
Because I don’t know if you’re the only friend I have who does what I do and loves what I love—or if you’re something more, Beth thought. And I want to know. Because you make me dizzy.
She didn’t know how to say that. “Why did you ask me to come along today?” she asked instead.
“Because you’ve got a great, big, beautiful brain all teeming with lobsters and wheels and roses,” Harry said, “and I could get tangled up in it all night.”
You said it better, Beth thought dizzily. She spoke before she could stop and think, before she could find an excuse to dive back into the shadows.