Dear Miss Callum,
You have been assigned to the HMS Pembroke V. Please arrive at Bletchley Station at 2pm on the 20th of August, where you will be met …
Dot carefully laid the two letters, one dated yesterday and the other three days ago, side-by-side on the table before her. Dick’s scientific thinking had rubbed off on her enough that she couldn’t quite believe it any more than a coincidence; but her romantic side still nudged at her. Stay with Nancy, she proposed to herself, tentatively. Live with her on my new assignment. Help her clear out the G.A.’s house. Come home to her in the evening. She couldn’t quite imagine it as more than an idle daydream, the kind she tried not to dwell in.
Clearing out the G.A.’s house in Fenny (confound and bless Miss Huskisson; thank goodness she got Aunt Maria to move so far away from Mother, but what a horrible lot of junk she had) continues apace. I have donated huge piles to the War Effort, including a series of horrible fire guards that I hope they melt down into something really useful (but really even a rubbish bin would be an improvement). I begin to feel that the end is in sight. Do come up and visit me next time you get a bit of leave. Mrs Jones, the housekeeper, has left to go and do something related to the war effort on the coast and I’m rather lonely. Of course I could go home to mother but the ATS posted me as a driver here when the G.A. got ill and I’d hate to leave after having had to be transferred. And of course not much fun to go back to driving the Rattletrap. I am thinking of offering to take billets. There are whole gangs of Wrens and Waafs about here who need places to stay, as well as us ATS types, but it would be jolly good to see a familiar face, especially since I’m not yet very good at the cooking business...
Dot pictured Nancy as she’d last seen her: tall, her black curls blowing around her face, waving out the window of the train. She’d come up to London to see Peggy and Titty before they went off to train as ack-ack girls, and the four of them had found a tiny teashop in the station and had a rather bad cup of tea and sawdusty piece of cake. Then Peggy and Titty had caught their train, smart in their ATS uniforms, off to learn how to spot German planes flying in, and track them, and shoot them down. Nancy had stayed the night with Dot at the Callum house before catching the train back to the incredibly muddy field on the outskirts of London where she had been one of a searchlight-operating team; Dot had decided to find a service and join up well before Nancy got on her train.
Now Dot glanced at the wall, where her barely-worn WRNS uniform hung. She’d been training to be a signal operator, and had thought she’d been doing quite well, until the letter came in the mail that morning, ordering her away from home. I wonder what on earth they can want of me.
She shook her head, trying to brush it all aside, and pulled Nancy’s letter towards her. She smiled at the bold writing and lingered over the enthusiastic stick figures signalling “Love, Nancy” at the bottom. Nancy’s writing, she thought, hadn’t changed much since they were children; she remembered a letter rather like this one, inviting the crew of the Scarab to come and stay at Beckfoot, arriving a few months before she and Dick would spend a summer as Picts. Only, now she thought of it, that one, in a fit of schoolgirl politeness, had been signed Ruth.
Dot scrambled in her desk for pen and paper. Dear Nancy, she began, How strange the world is sometimes. I have just had a Letter from the Admiralty, as the Swallows used to say about their father; but instead of bother the Admiralty, today, three cheers for the Admiralty. Or the War Office, really.
Thanks for the letter last week; sorry not to have written for a while. We have been hard at work learning how to use all the machines and so on that the anti-aircraft guns need. Apparently there are all sorts of different things that get pointed at Jerry planes and give off information that the plotters use, and then plotters tell the gunners, and the gunners fire; the gunners are all regular army, since auxiliaries aren’t allowed to use the guns. Some sort of weaker-sex thing that ought obviously not be applicable to pirates and explorers (no I didn’t say that to them. I bet you would have, even when faced with the horrible sergeant who clearly thought we were all useless girls.)
It has been beastly hot here, especially when running around doing physical jerks, but they tell us that when we’re spotting at night-time we’ll be glad of the heavy gear; some people will be underground but I suppose some of us will be above-ground like you used to be when you were on the searchlights. Bearing your letters from then in mind I have begun knitting gloves.
Titty and I have managed to stick together pretty closely; Swallows and Amazons forever, and all that. But all the girls around are friendly; we’ve all been thrown into it a bit and can’t help sticking close to each other. You would like some of them; fit to be pirates.
The thing I keep thinking about again and again is what the guns are going to sound like. We haven’t had live fire practice yet. That starts next week. I keep wondering how much they sound like thunder, and what I’m going to do without you holding my hand.
I miss you. But this Amazon is going to carry on regardless.
Love and kisses and death and glory,
Dot arrived outside the small brick house and glanced at the number – 64. She checked it against the letter from Nancy clutched in her hand. They matched; but, as she gazed at the house, with its reasonably-kempt victory garden in rows of lettuces and mounds of potatoes and bright marigolds, its narrow windows and, most of all, its utter distance from any kind of lake or river or sailing, Dot had terrible trouble picturing it as a place the ruthless pirate Nancy Blackett could live.
“Ahoy, Dorothea!” Nancy swung open the door as Dot stood looking at the garden. “Admiring my lawn? Or rather, my ex-lawn,” she said in a more moderated tone, hopping down the stairs and coming over to give Dot a familiar squeeze. “I love to imagine what Aunt Maria would think. Forget daisies; how about carrots? I planted it up just as soon as she died. Of course I couldn’t let her see it; it would have killed her faster, and then I’d be banged up for murder and no good to anyone …”
Dot laughed, and hugged her back. “It looks lovely,” she said. “Did you do it all yourself?”
“Well, not much else to do in the evenings around here, you know,” said Nancy. “Dances with the local troops, I suppose, and pictures, but there isn’t a body of water that’s more than a glorified pond for miles and miles. So gardening it is.”
“Perhaps I’ll be able to give you a hand,” said Dot, cheerfully.
“You’d better get settled in before I draft you into the Blackett Land Girls. Come on.” Nancy scooped up Dot’s kit and trotted ahead of her, thumping up the stairs. “You’ll have a bedroom of your own,” she shouted back over her shoulder. “They’re all a bit cold in winter, to be honest, lots of timber-shivering, but fine right now.”
As Dot came up behind her, she started to smile; for pinned to one door was a familiarly unscientific rendition of an Egyptian scarab. “You are Nancy after all,” she said, with some relief. “I thought you’d turned rather … well, rather Ruth.”
“Never,” said Nancy. “Oh, never. I might be a temporarily land-lubbing pirate, but I’m a pirate for all that.”
I have been posted to the HMS Pembroke V, which is a land posting in Buckinghamshire. I reported last week and have been trained up. There’s not much to say about what I am doing except that I am on a rather funny schedule – there are three shifts, finishing at four in the afternoon, midnight, and eight in the morning; currently I finish at four, but soon I will start at four and finish at midnight. Luckily I have a dromedary to get home with.
Some of us have been billeted nearby. I feel ferociously lucky because, do you know, Nancy Blackett is here? She is in the ATS (fancy me in the Wrens and Nancy in the ATS; she said she joined the ATS because of course it was the first service she could join. And Peggy too. Nancy was operating searchlights outside of London; but now she works as a driver). Do you remember Miss Turner, the terrifying Great Aunt? She’s living in what was apparently Miss Turner’s best friend’s house. Miss Turner moved down from Harrogate when the friend took ill, and after the friend died Miss Turner stayed on, but last year she became very ill herself and Nancy, believe it or not, came up to nurse her. And then Nancy has stayed on after Miss Turner passed away. Funny but perhaps Miss Huskisson didn’t have any relatives of her own.
Anyway it is just the two of us at present. I feel quite lucky. A lot of the ATS girls are in a great bunkhouse nearby, very cold and Spartan, and the other Wrens are all in Woburn Abbey – hundreds of them! I thought we would miss Susan’s cooking but Nancy is surprisingly good, or as good as one can be with rationing the way it is, and I am learning. No rabbit yet, but it’s not rationed and I hear from some of the girls I work with that it’s quite easy to get around here, so it may soon appear on our menu … with home-grown potatoes and carrots. Digging for victory, or anyway we’re trying.
Of course I understand that you can’t say much about what you’re working on but I’m very proud of you, whatever it is, and I know Mother and Father are too. I hope you’re taking care of yourself as well as England. Do remember to eat and sleep, won’t you?
All my love,
“Come along, Callum,” shouted Nancy from the stairs. “We don’t want to miss the start.”
“All right,” yelled back Dot, and took one last look at herself in the cracked mirror. She pursed her red lips at herself for fun, gently plumped her curls, and ran a hand down her best dress (only lightly mended). All right for a night out at the pictures, she told herself, even if it is just a film on a wall at the school hall with a whole flock of Wrens. She lifted her handbag off her bed (only the essentials: her purse, her notebook and her housekeys), thoughtfully chucked her lipstick in, and clattered out to the top of the stairs.
Nancy had propped herself on the banister at the bottom and as Dot came out, she looked up. The expression on her face made Dot get warm all over, and smile just a little.
“You look very nice,” said Nancy.
Dot laughed, self-consciously. “Well – we don’t have much of a chance to dress up, do we? You do too.” She was wearing a rather pretty dress that Dot hadn’t seen before; it struck Dot as rather more Ruth than Nancy.
Nancy glanced down at herself. “This is one of the G.A.’s,” she said. “I mean not hers, she bought it for me. It’s not very good for pirating in, you know, or riding a dromedary.”
“You’re living incognito,” said Dot, coming down the stairs. “Nobody around here knows the fearsome pirate Captain Nancy is living in their midst –”
“ – except you –”
“ – except me, but I’m your ally. Your explorer friend. I’ll keep your secret; but of course they expect Miss Ruth to attend films in proper Miss Ruth attire.”
“Naturally,” said Nancy. “Have to play the part properly to keep ‘em guessing. Dresses and gardens and all that.” She straightened and lifted Dot’s greatcoat off the hook by the door, holding it open for Dot to slip her arms into the sleeves, and then shrugged on her own.
The two girls sauntered down the street into the rapidly darkening evening. “It’s getting rather cold in the evenings,” Dot said.
“Rather,” said Nancy. “I’m afraid it’s going to be a cold winter. Not very good for my vegetables.”
Dot linked their arms together and they picked up their heels a little more.
Half an hour later, seated together on rickety chairs in the school hall, and having got through the newsreel and the cartoon without incident, “Oh!” said Dot as the title card came up for the feature. “It’s a thriller.”
“Ssssh!” said someone behind her, and Dot subsided.
But she couldn’t restrain herself totally; romantic Dot, to her perpetual shame, was easily moved by films in general and thrillers in particular, and found herself trembling and gasping rather helplessly as the suspense on the screen wound her up. In a particularly tense moment, she first startled and then relaxed all in a rush as she felt one of Nancy’s firm, callused hands take hers, and the other arm go around her. Calm, capable Nancy, terror of the seas; Dot sighed, and leaned in to her in relief.
As the lights came up, Dot released her grip on Nancy’s hand, and Nancy withdrew it; she ducked her head a bit and said “Sorry, I forgot you weren’t Peggy and might not need a hand.”
“Oh, no,” said Dot at once, with a blush. “I did, rather. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” said Nancy, promptly; Dot thought she sounded relieved. “Let’s get home, shall we?”
“Post for Walker, Blackett, Abbott and Scripps,” said the girl poking her head into the battered hut where Peggy and Titty sat on their bunks, Peggy sewing a stocking and Titty contemplating a letter to her mother.
“Thanks,” said Titty, jumping up and taking her letter and Peggy’s, before returning to her bunk, putting aside the letter with a grateful sigh and ripping open her own letter.
“It’s from Dot!” she said, happily, as a thick wad of the thin paper fell out. “A new chapter of Outlaw of the Broads, and a letter.”
“Mine’s Nancy,” said Peggy. She scanned it. “Not very long – her usual really. Oh, she says Dot has been billeted with her!”
“So does Dot,” said Titty. “How funny, you and me here and them together there. But she doesn’t say what she’s doing, only where she’s stationed.”
“Nancy’s still driving,” said Peggy. “But she’s done all sorts of things. Searchlights, barrage balloons … She’s good at the knots and things, and strong. They’re quite heavy apparently … but not much demand for barrage balloons in Buckinghamshire. She’s learning to cook. She got one of those pamphlets, you know, cooking for the war effort, and said she’s writing to Susan for tips.”
Titty laughed. “Susan hates ration cooking. I had quite a long paragraph on it in her last letter, and you know Susan doesn’t really write long letters.”
“Too busy,” agreed Peggy. “Just like Nancy. She always has something else to do.”
“Mm,” said Titty. She put down Dot’s letter with a sigh. “Dot says she just had a letter from Dick. I wish we’d hear from John.”
Peggy slipped across between beds and perched next to Titty. “I’m sure he’s well,” she said awkwardly.
Titty said, “Yes,” and fell silent.
Peggy looked away politely until Titty straightened and said, “Well, anyway, Dot doesn’t say much about what she’s doing but she and Nancy do seem to be having fun. Almost playing house. And I’ll be able to read Outlaw of the Broads to the girls again tonight.”
Peggy grinned. “Will he have managed to escape the McGinty yet?”
As Titty laughed, a siren began to go outside, and the laugh died instantly
The pair jumped up, grabbing their greatcoats from the heads of their beds. Titty shoved her letters under the pillow and they ran outside, towards the great gun, the height finder and the Kerry predictor. They clustered around the last, taking their positions as other girls in their green ATS uniforms and brimmed helmets joined them.
“Blasted rude of Jerry,” said one, gasping. “I was just having a wash.”
“If you wouldn’t be so slow,” said another girl, pointedly, as she bent to peer through an eyepiece.
As they worked, they heard the distant sound of air raid sirens and one of the guns started firing, thundering away above them. Peggy shivered and ducked back to her eyepiece, noticing Titty glancing at her. She managed a grin back.
“All right?” shouted Titty.
“Fine,” said Peggy, firmly.
Thank you for the latest installment of Outlaw of the Broads. Don’t be cross with me, but I’ve taken to reading it out loud when there’s not much to do. (Not very often.) We’re all fearfully enthralled with his adventures, so do scribble on if you can.
About our living conditions, now that we’re finally through training and posted proper – twelve of us sleep in a Nissen hut. There’s more space than there was on the Goblin! Which is lucky because we all have piles of gear, especially cold-weather gear for us girls who have to stand outside. But they look after us pretty well and we have leave every three months. Peggy’s in the bed next to mine. It’s nice having someone I know so well.
Really Peggy is very surprising. The guns, when they fire, are ferociously loud and right on top of us, and I never would have imagined – well, you remember how Peggy used to be about thunder. The first night we were out I thought she might faint. But she doesn’t even seem to be upset. She says it’s because she has something to do that she knows is important. The Amazons can always surprise me, even now ...
Peggy’s writing to Nancy and I’m sure she’ll say so but do give my love to Nancy, and of course to Dick when you write to him. I am due a bit of leave soon; perhaps I’ll come and see you!
Dot lay in bed, curled up under what she felt must be at least fifteen or twenty blankets, and shivered. Winter had come on surprisingly hard and fast and now, in her narrow bed that had always been so cosy, she felt frozen to the bone. If I can just fall asleep, she thought, I won’t notice the cold; but it was useless.
Suddenly she heard footsteps in the corridor, and her door swung open; a shadowy figure stood there in its nightgown, and said, “Dot! Are you warm?”
“My timbers are shivering,” said Dot, sleepily.
“So are mine. You’d better come along into my room; two will keep warmer than one.”
“All right,” said Dot, and began to untangle herself from her bedding. Nancy came over, picked up half of Dot’s covers, and carried them back to her room where she piled them up on top of her own.
“Hop in,” she said, raising one corner; and Dot, gratefully, did.
Nancy climbed in the other side and cuddled right up to Dot, slinging an arm over her shoulders and saying “Brrrrrrrr, my feet are cold.” She buried her face in her pillow and appeared to drop off; Dot, in her arms, was twice as warm as she had been in her own bed, and about three times as awake.
She lay stiff, for a while, unwilling to move lest she wake Nancy; then, after a long time feeling Nancy’s steady breath tickling the hairs on the back of her neck, she turned, inch by inch, until they were face-to-face.
She squinted in the darkness at Nancy’s surprisingly soft sleeping face; her dark eyelashes and warm full mouth, still for once. A strand of hair was caught over her nose, and Dot, without thinking properly, reached out to brush it back behind her ear.
Nancy’s hand rose and caught hers; her eyes flicked open. Dot held her breath. Nancy’s expression was unreadable in the dark, her eyes barely glinting, but Dot was sure she was about to speak; and, in a fit of boldness, or a mad unwillingness to let Nancy break the silence, Dot leaned forward and pressed her mouth to Nancy’s.
She flushed hot, instantly, and nearly pulled back; but after a surprised stillness Nancy’s hand came up and settled in her hair, and Nancy’s mouth moved gently under hers, and Dot felt how they were pressed together at breast, belly, and hip, right down to their feet tangling together, and realised she couldn’t draw away if she wanted to, which, she discovered, she didn’t.
Your mother wrote to our mother and Peg and I simply begged Cookie to go along with it and although mother fussed a bit eventually she said YES and Peggy and I would be very delighted to have you and Dick to stay at Beckfoot at the beginning of the holiday. We have promised to be on our very best behaviour and no camping – but it’s all right since you’ll have the new boat and we’ll be sailing anyway. The Walkers will arrive a week after you get here and we can have a proper war.
What are you going to call her? Does Dick have a very scientific name in mind?
Peggy and I are very well. This week will be Games Day so the school is very busy getting things set up. The Old Girls all visit for it and so the school likes to put on a good show. At least this means the food will be good and we’ll have a bit of fun (even though it always means running in the rain.)
We’re very much looking forward to seeing you.
Hoping you are well, yours sincerely,
“Hullo the house!” came Nancy’s voice as she let herself in to the kitchen. Dot, at the table, looked up, and smiled.
“Hullo,” she said. “There’s potatoes on the stove – I hope I haven’t gone and done a Dick.”
“They look all right,” said Nancy, lifting the lid so a great cloud of steam escaped and batting at it with Dot’s cast-aside apron. “Well, mashed, anyway, with salt and a bit of milk if there is any.”
“There’s a dribble,” said Dot, jumping up, “And I’ve got a bit of liver sliced up to fry with a bit of onion.”
“Good-o. You do that, then, and I’ll do this.”
Dot ducked under the sink to grab a frying pan and slid it onto the hob, still hot from the potatoes. Into it she dropped a slice of bacon rind and then, as it melted, onion and sliced liver. On a whim, she leant over to Nancy, busily whipping potatoes with a wooden spoon, and kissed her cheek.
Nancy smiled at her. “Had a good day, able seaman?”
“Rather,” said Dot, thinking about her morning in Hut 8 with a brief glow of satisfaction.
“Saving Britain with your big brains?”
“I’m a secretary,” said Dot, severely. “Which you’ve been told before.”
Nancy laughed. “Oh yes. Of course. And Dick’s off in Suffolk doing clerical work.”
Dot attempted a frown and broke into a smile. “That’s right.”
“Oh well. So what secretarial feat did you accomplish today?”
“Nothing much,” Dot said. “But I had a letter from Titty today and she reminded me of something and I’ve been re-reading some of my letters. Do you know, I had a terrible pash for you at school?”
Nancy widened her eyes. “And here I was thinking you still had one,” she said.
“Hm,” said Dot, before her pan sizzled and she whisked it off the heat. “Set the table, will you?”
Nancy did, as Dot spooned mashed potato onto plates and topped them with liver. She frowned at the plates for a moment before lifting a tomato off the window-sill and slicing it onto the plates, which she carried over to the table.
“No salad?” asked Nancy. “‘A salad a day’, you know, Dot…”
Dot kicked her. “We had a salad for lunch. And anyway I’m simply sick of lettuce and,” she said with loathing, “cucumber, no matter how well we grow it.”
“Only teasing,” said Nancy.
“I know you are,” said Dot. “No wonder my crush didn’t survive. I would have been terrified every second of living with Captain Nancy.”
“No military discipline. What are the Wrens coming to? All your brainboxes up there are terrible for your manners.”
“I’m sorry, Aunt Maria,” said Dot, and Nancy gave a great yell of horror.
“Dot!” she said. “I might be living in her house and of course I’m awfully grateful to her and all that, but you really couldn’t hurt me more.”
“You are rather like her, you know,” Dot said. “I’ve always thought so. Ever since the day she got lost, and we delivered her back – you remember –”
“Do I,” said Nancy. “Nearly the worst day of my life, and then the best one.”
“– Well, when she was telling off Tommy I thought she was rather like you.”
Nancy looked a little green. “You’re making me seasick,” she said. “Change the subject, do. What letters did you find?”
“Oh, just a few ones I keep with me. All sorts. It’s funny what you want to keep. One from Titty in school. All about French verbs. And the Outlaw of the Broads. Titty’s my most devoted fan. Some from Dick, of course, and mother and father. One from you inviting me and Dick to stay with you, that year the great-aunt was there – that’s probably what put me in mind of her, really. Rather a lot of letters from you, in fact. Don’t go getting a swelled head. ”
“Are you quite sure that crush didn’t survive?”
“Oh, yes,” said Dot. “I know you’re human now.” Daringly, she toed off a shoe under the table and began sliding a foot up Nancy’s stockinged ankle.
“That’s what you think,” said Nancy, firmly catching Dot’s foot between hers as she finished the last bite on her plate. She rose even as she was chewing and swallowing, picking up her plate and Dot’s and slinging them in the sink with the dirty pans. She began doing the dishes with a great clatter; Dot, chin in her hand, watched for a while before standing to dry.
“For example,” she said, nudging Nancy aside to reach a clean plate draining by the sink, “Schoolgirl Dot would never have imagined that Captain Nancy would willingly do the dishes before … playing. I think I imagined Peggy kept you in line.”
Nancy laughed. “Schoolgirl Dot never had mice because of dirty dishes, I expect,” she said, finishing and drying off her hands.
Dot put the last dish away and turned to her. “No,” she admitted. “I don’t think she did.”
Nancy held out a hand and reeled Dot in, sliding an arm around her waist. Dot turned her face up, and Nancy kissed her thoroughly.
They broke away after a few minutes, and Dot said breathlessly, “Schoolgirl Dot didn’t know what she was missing, really. Come to bed, will you?”