To the American officers who condescended to tell the ladies in Knox’s section how to do their work—all BB can say is: Really, gentlemen? Did you fail to notice these women have a CMG on their wall? You don’t win the Companionship of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George for Best Radishes in the Victory Garden . . .
* * *
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now is hung with bloom about the bough . . .’” Dilly’s voice echoed, happy and careless.
“But it’s covered in snow,” Beth answered aloud, looking at the tree arching overhead. Earlier this year, a warm winter had meant it blossomed unseasonably fast; she’d come to Courns Wood with Abwehr traffic, alternating days with Peggy, and she and Dilly would spread a blanket in his garden and sit boxing and rodding as white petals drifted down. Now it was nearly winter; the cherry tree was bare.
And Dilly Knox was dead.
Beth stood alone under the tree—but not really alone. Turning her head, she could imagine Dilly beside her so vividly: smoking his pipe, no longer gaunt and graying because in her imagination he was restored to health. When she came here, she could replay entire conversations they’d had before he died, tell him what had happened since, imagine his answers . . . sometimes she pictured him sitting in the desk beside her at work, so she could ask his advice on a tricky crib.
“Gives me the creeps when you do that,” Phyllida said, shivering. “It sounds proper mad, you having conversations with a dead man.”
“It helps me work.” Cope, too.
“The cherry covered in snow, that’s the poem’s third verse,” Dilly went on in Beth’s imagination. “You should read more poetry, m’dear.”
“When?” Beth asked the dead man. She tossed a stick for Boots, who ignored it as he trundled over the frozen ground. Her dog looked like a grumpy tin of Scottish shortbread in a little tartan coat Mab had made out of an old blanket. Mab . . . but Beth pushed that familiar guilt away. “I’ve been trying to break back into the KK traffic, Dilly.” A pinch during Operation Torch had produced a multi-turnover Abwehr machine, rewired and used for a link that hadn’t been broken cryptographically before. “Six weeks of back traffic broken, but we haven’t been able to get back in. Where’s the time for poetry?”
“Verse can be handy in our line of work. I’ve broken more than one key that was picked out of a line of Goethe. Operators are supposed to choose random letters, but they don’t. It’s not in human nature to be random.” He sounded affectionate at this universal failing. “So sometimes they pick fragments of poetry as keys instead.”
“Or dirty words,” Beth replied. “I’ve decrypted a lot more traffic keyed to dirty words than lines of Schiller.”
“Dear me. My well-bred gels are being subjected to Germanic cursing?”
“Scheisse,” said Beth, and Dilly laughed until he choked. “How’s that new cipher you’re working on?” she asked. Dilly had told her about it on her very last visit: Tricky, tricky stuff. Reminds me of a rose, petals overlapping downward toward the core. His hands had made vague blooming motions over the bed—a bed he was too weak to leave by then. Travis didn’t mind if I took it home to pick at, not that I’ve made much headway . . .
Beth wished he were here, to tell her more about it. “I miss you,” she whispered aloud.
Nothing felt the same. Her billet-mates were still avoiding each other, leaving Beth stranded in the middle, very determinedly not thinking about what had caused the breach and if part of that might be her fault. Bletchley Park, with all the new blocks and new recruits, wasn’t quite the haven it had once been; Beth felt waves of her old crippling shyness every time she stepped into the streaming mass of strangers at shift change. Yet things were going better now than they had during the old Cottage days, Beth had to admit—with U-boat operations suspended in the Atlantic, American soldiers and supplies were flowing steadily; German and Italian troops were surrendering in North Africa; the massive invasion of Sicily had kicked down the door for the move to mainland Italy and now the Allies were celebrating in Naples. An Allied return to French shores was being discussed in pubs and over tea tables as something that would happen, not something everyone hoped might happen. Things were better.
But . . .
“I miss my ladies,” the imagined Dilly said wistfully. Wherever he was now, Beth was sure he missed them. “I wish I’d been there when you took those Yanks down a peg.”
“Catching sight of your CMG set them straight.” It had been January when word came down that Dilly Knox, in recognition of his wartime achievements, was to be awarded the CMG. Dilly had been far too ill to travel to London for the ceremony, but he’d received the palace emissary at Courns Wood, accepted the award . . . which he’d kept for all of ten minutes before dispatching it by car to ISK with a note:
Awards of this sort depend entirely on the support of colleagues and associates. May I, before proceeding, refer them back!
It is, I fear, incumbent upon me at the same time to bid farewell.
Everyone, Dilly’s whole section, had wept.
He died not long after.
Beth realized she was crying, tears dripping off her chin. She collected Boots’s lead and without another word trailed back toward the house. She didn’t need to look back to see him sitting there, in his university scarf, thinking of inward-folding ciphers and A. E. Housman verse.
Mrs. Knox came out of the kitchen, drying her hands on her apron. “Beth, could you take a stack of papers back to Bletchley for me? Commander Travis gave permission for Dilly to keep them in his library when he was working, but now . . .”
Her voice trailed off. Her eyes were reddened, and Beth couldn’t meet them straight on. Too much grief.
Mrs. Knox rallied to complete the thought. “They should be back under proper security. I should have thought of it months ago, but no one came asking, and I’ve been in such a state. I can’t think it was anything terribly important if they didn’t send for it before now, but one still shouldn’t leave these things lying about.”
“Of course I’ll take them.” Beth followed her into the library, waiting as Dilly’s small safe behind the wall panel was unlocked and a folder of messages extracted. Beth was tempted to peek, see if this was the cipher Dilly had compared to a rose, but tucked it unopened inside her coat. She’d ask if she could work on it in her spare time, if she had any. There was going to be another jumbo rush as soon as plans firmed up for the invasion, which would surely be this coming year. More work for Knox’s section, feeding false information through double agents, then cracking the Abwehr traffic to make sure Berlin swallowed it . . .
Beth telephoned the transport pool. She’d be early for her shift, but carrying a folder of Enigma meant getting a BP transport back to the Park, and immediately. Drawing up to the Park gates the better part of an hour later, Beth was surprised to see a familiar figure arguing with one of the guards.
“Drop me here,” Beth told the driver, and swung out. “Dad?”
He turned round, red faced, frustrated. “These fellows wouldn’t let me in.”
“They won’t let anyone in without a pass.” She pulled him aside from the gate. “What is it?”
“Your mother is in a state. The things she’s been hearing about you . . .”
The last time Beth had paid a dutiful call home, Mother had called her a tart and a serpent’s tooth, and Beth had turned and walked right back out. She hadn’t been privy to much family news after that. “What’s she raging about now?”
“There is talk, Bethan. That you’re mixed up with some dark fellow. The pastor’s wife saw you in Cambridge walking with some chap she insisted was at least half black—”
“He’s not black,” Beth said.
“Well, I’m glad to hear—”
“He’s Maltese, Egyptian, and Arabic. Shall I bring him round for tea?” Beth couldn’t resist.
“You’re joking, surely. A heathen?”
“He was raised Church of England like his entire family.” Though Beth thought Harry’s faith lay more in mathematics than God; they’d had some spirited theological discussions along those lines. “His name’s Harry Zarb. He speaks Arabic as well as English; it’s a lovely language. Oh, and he’s married! But he’s absolutely wonderful, Dad.”
“Bethan”—plaintively—“just come home.”
“No.” Beth spoke mildly but firmly, bringing Boots to heel. “I’m happy to visit if Mother can manage not to pitch a fit, but I’m never moving back.”
“I’m your father. I have the right—”
“No, you don’t.” Beth looked him in the eye. “You didn’t stop her throwing me out. You never defended me. You never told me I was clever, even though I can do the Sunday crossword ten times faster than you. You never told me I was anything.” She thought of Dilly Knox, frail and bright burning, telling her she was the best of his Fillies. “I have to go to work now.”