Osla looked straight ahead to the road twisting down the slope. “Go on hating me,” she said. “I hope it helps.”
“I don’t hate you, Os.” Mab’s eyes were invisible behind her huge sunglasses. “I try not to feel much of anything these days—love or hate. I love Eddie and Lucy, because you can’t help loving your children, and that’s how it should be. But it’s easier if I don’t feel much of anything for anyone else.”
“Easier to do what?”
They motored on in silence.
Twelfth November. Nine days before Beth’s surgery, for which she’d been receiving increasing examinations; eight days before the royal wedding, which the nurses blathered about endlessly. “They say the bridesmaids are wearing white, but with the princess wearing white . . .” Chattering and chattering as Beth sat with her Go partner, desperately trying to engage the woman.
“Just one move. The black stone.” Nothing. “Would you rather try chess?” Beth laid out the chessboard. “Remember when you first taught me how to turn a pawn into a queen?”
Nothing. The woman who had played chess like a grand master now sat utterly still, utterly vacant, occasionally shitting herself. Her eyes were blank as shaded windows. It can’t end this way, Beth screamed inside. Not for you, and not for me either. It can’t!
But then it came:
“Special treat for you, Miss Liddell,” the matron cooed.
A vise for my head. Then the whine of a drill, the wet shoving sound of a surgical tool cutting through her brain . . .
Had they moved the procedure up?
Panic hit Beth in a wave, and the chessboard upended in a scatter of black and white pieces as she tried to run.
Only a two-hour drive to the asylum, but everything had gone wrong. A road was washed out and they had to detour for hours; a tire blew, then a torrential downpour of rain hit. “That snaffles it,” Osla had seethed. “Visiting hours will be done by the time we arrive.” She and Mab had ended up spending a resentful night at a drab hotel two miles from Clockwell and making their way through the asylum gates the following morning.
Mab steered the Bentley through the grounds and parked in the indicated lot. There was no trouble about their names or any request for identification when Mab and Osla strode in with their most confident swing of hips and handbags. “Here to see our sister Alice Liddell—Mrs. Riley and Mrs. Chadwick.” Giving the names of Beth’s married sisters.
The matron at the front desk rose. “I’ll show you to her. We do ask, of course, that you not mention your sister’s upcoming surgery during the visit.”
Osla’s heart began to thud. “What surgery?” This place had looked so friendly when they rolled up: a mellow stone country house with two extended wings, surrounded by rambling gardens. Now the bright winter light streaming through the windows looked glaring, a spotlight to cut down anyone who passed through it.
“The surgery was discussed with her parents, as her next of kin. It’s a procedure that has had tremendous success improving the temperament of moody or emotionally distressed patients. Simple surgical severance of the connections between the—”
“In English, please,” Mab said. Osla gripped the edge of the desk, pulse beating ominously.
“It’s a new wave in advanced treatment of the mentally impaired. Much more common in America, but our new chief physician is versed in the latest techniques.” The matron smiled. “It’s called a lobotomy.”
“What’s a lobotomy?” The word gave Osla the shivers.
“A harmless procedure, I assure you. Your sister will be much the better for it.” Twinkle. “Now, come with me.”
THE GARDEN WAS dry and dead, but white-smocked, empty-eyed women still wandered through it. “Patients have the grounds in the afternoon for exercise . . .” Osla ignored the matron. They’d been brought to wait beside the stone benches in the center of the rosebushes, and she was about to see Beth, on whom she hadn’t laid eyes in three and a half years. At her side, she could see Mab blinking too rapidly for calm, though she was the picture of elegance with her smartly slanted hat.
“No—” A raspy voice startled Osla, the edge of desperation so sharp it raised her hackles. “I don’t want a treat, I know where you’re taking me—”
“You silly girl, your sisters are here.” A nurse’s exasperated voice approached through the roses. “Don’t you want to see them?”
Beth stumbled into the center of the rose garden and stopped dead.
Osla and Mab froze, too. This was Beth? Their old billet-mate who had transformed herself from a beaten-down spinster in a moth-colored jumper to a star codebreaker with a Veronica Lake wave? This woman looked like a haunted-house apparition, stripped down to bones and tendons and raw, raging will. Beth’s nails were bitten bloody, her blond hair chopped at her shoulders, where she fidgeted constantly with its ragged ends. She started violently at every sound, yet Osla didn’t think she looked afraid. She looked too maddened to know what fear was: a writhing mess held barely upright by fury.
“She had a bout of pneumonia this spring,” the matron said a touch defensively, seeing their horror. “That’s why she’s so thin . . . I’ll leave you, shall I? Visits last one hour.”
She bustled off. Beth stood staring at the pair of them, and Osla’s nose prickled at the smell of sweat, fear, infrequent washing. “I—” Beth began, her voice raspier than it had once been, and stopped. “Don’t look at me, I’m not used to being looked at, well, doctors look, they look all the time, and the inmates are always watching but the doctors and inmates don’t expect you to behave logically. You need me to be logical, or else you’re going to walk out thinking I belong here, and I don’t—” She ran out of breath, speaking in a monotone almost too fast to follow.
“Beth.” Somehow, Osla found herself sitting on the bench, crossing her ankles and indicating the seat opposite for Beth as if they were sitting down to tea. Back straight, girls! she could hear her old finishing-school teachers cry. There’s no social disaster that can’t be remedied with good manners! “We’re here, and we’re listening.” Osla kept her voice as calm as possible.
Beth gulped again. Mab took the seat beside Osla, and Osla could read the flicker of her eyes like newsprint. Insane? Mab was wondering. Or terrified?
Osla leaned forward. There was no one close enough to eavesdrop; she could finally ask. “Who is the traitor?” And the word didn’t sound this time like something from a melodrama. It sounded like truth.
“Giles Talbot,” Beth said, and horror drenched Osla in an icy flood. No, she thought, it can’t be Giles, it can’t—but the words were spilling from Beth in a torrent.
She looked mostly at the roses as she spoke, and her recitation had a clipped haste, as though she’d imagined this moment too long not to rush delivering it. At last she fell silent. Osla looked at Mab and knew they were both picturing irrepressible redheaded Giles with a ludicrously decked-out top hat and a plate of bread and marg. Giles, who had apparently been here just yesterday, threatening Beth.
Osla looked down at her clenched hands. Whatever she’d been expecting Beth to say, it wasn’t this.
“He was always angling for gossip.” Mab disordered the carefully set waves of her hair with a rake of one hand. “Not trying to charm it out of you, just being . . . cozy.”
“He liked to tell a woman he was in love with someone else,” Beth said. “It made them feel safe or it made them feel competitive, but either way they’d talk.”
“He once told me he was head over heels for you.” Mab looked at Beth, startled.
“He once told me he was head over heels for you,” Osla managed to say, looking at Mab.
“We all trusted him,” said Beth.
“He’s the goods, all right.” Osla heard her voice come out very small as she looked down at the emerald on her finger. “He’s also my fiancé.”
MIDWAY THROUGH ’44, going with Giles to see the Glenn Miller band near Bletchley Park. Jitterbugging to “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” taking nips from Giles’s flask, trying to banish the memory of dancing with Philip, trying to banish the bloody heartbreak. Letting Giles kiss her when the music swung into “In the Mood.”
“I know what I’m in the mood for,” Giles had murmured in her ear—he’d been chaffing her, trying to get a hint what she’d been translating in Hut 4, but she hadn’t given him a word, and when marvelous, unbeatable Glenn Miller changed the tune, so did Giles. “Come on, Os. You’ve got someone you’d like to forget. Why not give it a try with me?” And Osla, a little sauced and wholly heartsick, had thought, Why the hell not? Because what had being good ever got her, except here, heartbroken and wretched?