“Oh, God, what a racket.” Millie thumped the alarm clock off, turned on her bedside lamp, and swung out of her bed all in the same graceful movement. “After the war, when we go to Constantinople, we’ll be wakened by the muezzins. Shake a leg, Susan.”
“I’m awake,” Susan answered, without moving. It felt like the middle of the night, and Millie’s Westclox seemed loud as an air raid siren.
“You’d better be. Bags the bathroom.” Tying her silk wrapper and yawning, she shuffled out the door.
Susan wondered if she’d dreamed the strange lonely walk from their hut up to the House, the dizzying progress from room to room inside as one nameless department after another took stock of her story, and finally the sight of the great map with the markers on it for armies. But she knew the first part hadn’t been a dream. She knew she didn’t imagine the way the word “Diedrich” caught in her mind like a pebble in a sandal, rubbing, irritating, until she picked out what was wrong about it. She knew she didn’t imagine Lucy reeling off the list of postings, proving the repetition, or Millie checking the translations and the maps and boldly speaking up to Miss McBrien, or even Miss McBrien sending her up to the House. So it all must have happened, then, the discovery and the results.
Reluctantly, she rolled over and slid from under her own bedclothes. She twitched a corner of the blackout curtain aside and saw raindrops standing on the windowpane. Stockings-in-a-bottle wouldn’t do today; the paint would run. It’d have to be ankle socks and cold legs, or pinning up the hems on a pair of Millie’s elegant trousers and hoping the waist didn’t slip too far down her narrower hips. She went to the bureau and shook out her green Utility dress.
Millie burst back into the room, her face still damp from washing. “We’ve got shell eggs this morning, Mrs. Bancroft says. No fat to cook them, though, so they’ll have to be boiled. I told her four minutes for both of us.”
“Perfect.” Susan smiled. It was like Millie to remember that sort of little thing. “I don’t think I’ve had anything but powdered since my last billet.”
“Nothing but the best for extraordinary girls.” Millie took off her wrapper and tossed it to Susan. “Put that on and hurry, or we’ll be late.”
“I thought you weren’t afraid of Jean McBrien?” Susan stood holding the wrapper, watching the pale gold lamplight on the lines of Millie’s throat, then on her bare back, as she stripped off her pajama shirt and wriggled into her brassiere.
“I’m not, but you are. And Lucy near worships her.” Millie twisted around, her profile still Grecian-perfect even with her hair in Medusa snarls with the rags she used for curling papers, and jerked her head towards the door. “Go.”
Susan laughed, and went to wash up. As she brushed her teeth, she remembered Millie laughing while they got ready for bed the night before. You couldn’t be ordinary if you tried, Millie had said, and when Susan answered When this is over, won’t we have to be ordinary? she’d retorted I won’t let you.
I won’t let you.
Back in their room, buttoning her dress and watching Millie comb out her chestnut curls, Susan wondered why those words, and the low giggle before them, should feel important. It only meant Millie was in earnest about the two of them traveling after the war, that Millie really wanted to show her Zurich and Florence, and for the two of them to discover Constantinople, and Bombay, and St Petersburg, together. Which Susan had known already, because Millie made things happen. She said a thing and it was done, whether it was finding them digs together so Susan wouldn’t have to keep making the long trek to her first billet in Furzton, or getting Lucy into the Scottish dancing society despite it being already oversubscribed, or even wheedling a change in the rota out of Miss McBrien.
I won’t let you.
It stuck in her mind like a burr, like the word “Diedrich” in the decrypts. It was part of a pattern, but what pattern? Where was it going, and where would it end?
Lucy was waiting for them at the end of her lane so they could make the last part of the walk up to the gatehouse together. She’d stayed up that night to write to her cousin stationed in North Africa. “It felt strange,” she said, dropping her voice even further than usual, with a glance around at the others on the road, “to say ‘I hope you’re well’ when I know there’s a better chance than yesterday that he will be.” Susan smiled and linked arms with her. Millie walked a little faster. It could have been simply the rain making her want to move quickly, but it came to Susan’s mind that it wasn’t the first time Millie had drawn away when Susan stood close to someone else. Another fact; another burr. She watched the ends of Millie’s scarf bobbing ahead, and felt an odd trembling under the buttons of her dress. She tightened her arm on Lucy’s.
“It is cold, isn’t it?” Lucy said.
It was a quarter to eight; the midnight-to-eight shift was still at their posts so the stream of people went all one way through the gatehouse and up the drive. At the House it began to split into smaller streams, some going into the House, but most turning right towards the lake and to the prefab huts scattered like anthills over what had once been the grounds of a gracious estate. Well, Susan thought it gracious, and Lucy said that when she first came up she’d thought Cinderella’s palace couldn’t be half as grand, but Millie called it picturesque when she was being polite, and a ruin when she wasn’t.
Millie’d been at Bletchley longer than Susan and Lucy. She’d been there when Miss McBrien came, which might be why the supervisor didn’t frighten her. Millie had been first, then Miss McBrien, then Lucy, and finally Susan herself. Lucy had been just fifteen when she’d been evacuated from London to Bletchley village and, after an unsuccessful stint at the local school, had gotten a job in the Park as a messenger. She’d been there a week when Susan came in response to her call-up orders from the Central Registry. They’d started in the hut together, though, after Miss McBrien had seen Lucy being scolded by the manageress who thought Lucy was showing off when she said she already knew which letters went to which huts. Miss McBrien had intervened, and whisked Lucy away to see the fearsome Miss Moore at the House and had her reassigned where her almost-magical memory would be more use.
It couldn’t be eagerness to get out of the rain that made Millie hurry, because when Lucy and Susan reached the door to their hut, still five minutes before eight, she was standing outside smoking, not even taking the fraction of shelter that the narrow eaves offered. Lucy frowned and looked up at Susan. Susan put on what she hoped was a reassuring smile and nudged Lucy towards the door, murmuring “I’ll see.”
Millie didn’t look at Susan as she approached, but the end of her cigarette glowed brighter against the gray day.
“Are you all right?” Susan asked, when it became clear that Millie wasn’t going to say anything.
“Why wouldn’t I be all right?” Her voice was hard and bright; another burr. That was three; in geometry, it would define a plane.
“I don’t know.” Susan felt the quick, nervous smile on her face before she could stop it. “That’s why I asked.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“When we travel.” Millie let out a stream of smoke. “If we travel.”
“Of course we’ll travel.” You said it; it will happen. “Everywhere we’ve said.”
“I’ve said. Now you say.”
“Delphi,” Susan answered, without hesitation. “Where the oracle was.”
“Do you think the priestesses were ordinary?” Millie flicked the ash from her cigarette.
“I think they were like you.” She could imagine it perfectly: Millie in folds of white linen, her ivory shoulders bare and tinged with gold they way they were in the dim lamplight in their room, her shining hair bound with white bands, her face regal. “You and Miss McBrien. Strong. Sure.”
Susan watched Millie smoke. “We should go in,” she said, after a long moment. “It’s time.”
“You go. I’ll be along.”
The best thing, and the worst, about their work was how it depended on the steady accumulation of tiny pieces of information. Best, because you could go home at the end of your shift knowing that whatever you’d done, however drudge-like, was part of shoring up the defenses around their island and around their soldiers all over the world. And worst, because it could be such drudgery of tick marks and names and numbers, numbers, numbers. After the excitement of the day before and the short night, it would have been hard to settle to work even if Susan hadn’t been wondering about Millie.
I won’t let you.
There was something proprietary in that, and an air of permanence about the suggestion that she’d be there to let or not let Susan do something. She turned in her chair to look at Millie over at the map table. It only took a moment - it never seemed to take more than a moment - for Millie to look up as if she felt Susan’s eyes. She winked, easily, naturally, and went back to her work. Susan shivered, though she wasn’t cold.
I won’t let you.
She pushed back her chair and crossed to Millie. “What was wrong?” she asked in an undertone.
“Just a little out of sorts. Not enough sleep, and I might be getting the Curse.” Millie didn’t quite meet her eyes.
Susan put a hand on Millie’s arm, then snatched it back when Miss McBrien spoke from behind them.
“Miss Havers, Miss Leighton. If the two of you have time to chatter you have time to be useful. Typewriter ribbons, top shelf, storage cupboard. Off you go.”
“Yes, Miss McBrien.”
They had to go to one end of the hut to get the rickety stepladder from the broom closet, then carry it down to the storage cupboard at the other end. Susan kept drawing breath to speak, and then letting it out, not knowing what to say. Millie didn’t seem agitated as she’d been outside, but some tension still showed from time to time in the movements of her lips and her eyes. A strange tension but not, Susan realized, unfamiliar. She’d seen it the first time they had a tea break together, and the first night they’d been in digs together, and more times than that.
“This could do with a bit more ‘mend’ and a bit less ‘make do,’” Millie said, as she unfolded the stepladder. Her voice was so everyday that Susan suddenly thought she’d imagined everything. “I’ll go up, you hold it.”
“I’ll climb,” Susan said. Somehow it felt important to do something for Millie, no matter how small.
“As you like.” Millie gave her a steadying hand as she went up the first few steps, then shifted her grasp to the uprights of the ladder as Susan trailed a finger along the boxes. Pencils… carbon paper… rubbers… She turned, carefully, to look at the shelf over Millie’s head, and finally found the box.
When she reached for it, the stepladder wobbled; she braced her hands on the shelf and Millie braced the ladder, but still Susan’s face dropped very close to Millie’s, so close that she could feel Millie’s breath on her cheek.
“Sorry,” Susan murmured, breathless. “It’s a bit close in here…” She should pull back, she knew. She should apologize again. She should. She stayed still as a waxwork figure, though everything inside her skin seemed to be vibrating like the rails after a train passed, and her brassiere was suddenly too tight. Millie smelled like their room, like Lux soap flakes and treacle and Silktona stockings-in-a-bottle. Why should a familiar smell make her heart go so fast? Why should a familiar face draw her in like a magnet? Even this close, Millie’s skin was perfect. Even this close, Susan felt as far away as any of the places they’d spoken of traveling – Turkey, Egypt, Ceylon.
“Su…” said Millie, her velvety voice suddenly rough, and then all at once her lips were on Susan’s.
Oh, Susan thought, stupidly, that’s better. And then, when Millie’s chest came against hers, much better. Her hands fell from the shelf to Millie’s silk-clad shoulders, which tightened as Millie started to draw back. Oh, no. Susan gripped hard to keep her where she was, and opened her lips.
“Oh,” Millie breathed, and kissed her again, harder this time.
She tasted familiar. Maybe it was that they’d had the same breakfast; maybe it was that they were both girls; maybe it was that Millie was right for her, the way Bletchley was right for her, only more so, because Susan had been frightened when she went up to the House and she was not frightened now.
There wasn’t any pattern when Susan closed her eyes, only velvet dark deeper even than the blackout. Her throat felt dry, and she couldn’t get her breath. She had one hand tangled in Millie’s hair, and Millie had one inside her collar, and their chests were pressed together in a way that should have been awkward but wasn’t. Susan didn’t want to move, and yet she was squirming, as if she needed the lav, though she didn’t feel full but achingly hollow.
“Millie,” she whispered.
Then Millie’s knee came up beneath her skirt and petticoat to press there. Susan’s head fell back and she bit her lip to keep from crying out at the jolt of delight. A strange animal sound between a groan and a squeak made it through her tight-closed mouth. Millie laughed, very softly, very low in her throat, and kissed the point of Susan’s collarbone where it protruded from her dress. Kissed it smugly – how could a kiss be smug, Susan wondered, but that one was. How did she know? What were the qualities of smugness, and how could a kiss fit them? Then Millie’s fingers found the point of Susan’s breast, and Susan could not wonder about any question but how she could bear to have anything – even air, even silk, even skin – between herself and Millie.
“I thought…” Millie said, after what felt like no time at all.
“I’m sorry,” Susan answered. “I didn’t know it was…”
“Yes. That’s why I tried to not…”
“I mean… what I felt.” She smiled, briefly, nervous and yet calm. “About you.”
Millie’s smile was like the bright spot where two searchlights meet, but all she said was, “Let me fix your collar.”
They nearly forgot to get the box of typewriter ribbons, but Susan remembered, and they hurried the stepladder away, trying not to giggle. Back in their workroom they brought the ribbons to Miss McBrien at her desk in the corner behind the file cabinets. She didn’t look at the box, but studied them for a long moment before she said, “Good.”
Susan looked sideways at Millie, who smiled with polite curiosity at Miss McBrien.
“I expect you two to settle down, now,” Miss McBrien said. “And there’s to be no more… business… during your shift. You’ve the other sixteen hours for that. You don’t think you invented it, do you?” she added, briskly, when Millie’s expression moved on from bland to astonished.
“No… but... “
“Your eyebrow pencil’s smeared on Susan’s neck, your blouse is uneven, and she has threads from your trousers caught in her broken thumbnail.”
Susan put her hands behind her, then raised one to her throat.
“Other side,” said Miss McBrien, with an odd skip in her voice. “Oh, go on, Miss Leighton, clean her up.”
Susan tipped her head to the side while Millie licked a thumb and rubbed. No, she hadn’t imagined it: Miss McBrien was laughing at them. Gently. Silently. Affectionately. But laughing all the same.
“Be careful,” Miss McBrien said, not stern but still very Scottish, while Susan helped Millie adjust her blouse. “Even here, there’s them as might meddle, especially as Lucy’s so young and you both see so much of her.”
“I’d never…” Millie began.
“I know it’s not like that. I know,” Miss McBrien repeated. “Now, back to work.”
Millie nodded, opened her mouth, shut it, and nodded again.
“Thank you,” Susan said, finally finding her voice. She felt dizzy: with relief, with surprise, and with the strange new alive-ness of every fiber of her skin.
“Off you go,” said Miss McBrien, and made a little shooing motion that was almost like a blessing.