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Careless Talk Costs Lives

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1941

 

Miss Hecate Hardbroom has never been one to back down from a challenge, so when it becomes clear that the war is here to stay, she quits her teacher training programme and offers her services to the Ministry of Defence. Passes the exams with flying colours, and ends up stationed under Miss Ada Cackle in a creaky old school in a village an hour north of London.

It's empty, of course, all the children sent as far away from London as possible, but it doesn't take long for the others to arrive. Miss Cackle, it turns out, used to be the headteacher, and lives next door to the school in a small cottage; a bus full of young women, nervous and excited, turns up one Wednesday afternoon, and Hecate watches silently from her window as she greets them, takes stock of the company she is to keep for the duration of this conflict.

After a week, her initial impressions have solidified into more lasting opinions. Most of them are pleasant enough, normal young women drawn into a new and unfamiliar world by virtue of their determination to make a difference; only two stand out.

Her room-mate, Julie Hubble, is a curly-haired rebel with a habit of climbing out of her window after dark to join the locals in the village pub, and their friendship comes as a surprise to everybody – not least to themselves.

And Pippa Pentangle is everything she fears: secrets flow from her lips like water, and it doesn't matter that they're only ever her own – to Hecate, a word unconsidered is as good as a bullet. So in the evenings, she sits in the corner, lips pressed into a disapproving line, and watches her sparkle under the dim lights that are all they can afford. Thinks, careless talk costs lives.

*

The sirens ring out shockingly loud in the silence of the night and Hecate wakes in a panic, automatically pulls a thick jumper and coat on over her nightdress, and drags Julie downstairs in her slippers. Miss Cackle is in the kitchen, calmly directing everyone out to the Anderson shelter at the bottom of the sprawling garden without a hint of the fear that Hecate is sure must be written all over her own face.

They pack in to the shelter, the two oil lamps that some bright spark thought to grab flickering and fluttering, and when they hear the planes Hecate has to fight back a peal of nervous laughter. Oh, they've had drills – endless drills – but somehow this is different, real in a way she'd never imagined, all thick air and fear and the knowledge that it would only take one lucky hit to bury them alive.

She realises too late that she's visibly shaking.

And then there's a hand holding hers, soft and reassuring; she turns, and there – of all people – is Pippa, smiling up at her with worried eyes.

“It's okay,” Pippa whispers, and it's pitched quietly enough that nobody even glances at them – who knew she was capable of such tact?

“I'm fine,” Hecate shoots back under her breath, but Pippa doesn't let go of her hand until the all clear sounds, loud and reassuring.

When they finally all spill out into the garden, Hecate hangs back, stares up into the endless black of the starry sky and breathed deeply, letting the crisp night air burn at the back of her throat. Thinks of Pippa, of the gentle compassion in her eyes, the soft curve of bare lips usually painted a bold pink.

Wonders if she might have misjudged her.

*

“Come out with us,” Pippa says.

The girls have been out every Friday since they moved in, and every Friday Hecate has managed to find a way to avoid joining in. Usually she sits in Miss Cackle's office with a cup of tea and discusses the week's work, stretches sometimes to discussing the war effort or the weather, but mostly they sit listening to the radio. It's a reassuring routine, and one she enjoys.

But tonight – tonight Pippa is looking up at her with pleading eyes, and all Hecate can think about is how kind she'd been to keep hold of her hand the entire time they'd been stuck in the Anderson shelter. Someone needs to look after the girls, she tells herself – make sure their secrets are sealed in with thick lipstick – see to it that alcohol and freedom combined aren't enough to break the Official Secrets Act.

“Just this once,” she says, careful to keep the edge of excitement out of her voice.

Julie flashes her a suspicious look but says nothing, helps her do her hair instead, and they all traipse down to the little village pub.

It's certainly seen better, and more prosperous, days, but the landlord seems pleased enough to have customers, doesn't object to the endless cacophony of the jukebox. He even smiles as the girls push the tables to the edges of the room to form an impromptu dance floor, laughing and whirling and smiling as if tomorrow they won't wake up at seven o'clock sharp, down a pallid mug of coffee substitute, and spend the next nine hours trying to intellectually outmanoeuvre an enemy that has the finest minds of the country at its disposal.

Hecate watches from the corner of the room, a single glass of red wine still untouched in her hand, and tries not to think too hard about settling in an armchair with a nice cup of tea and the next chapter of her Agatha Christie.

She's lost in her thoughts and therefore too surprised to argue when Julie grabs her hand and drags her towards the middle of the room, spins her round and into her arms, and keeps her dancing for the entirety of the song.

“Traitor,” she murmurs when the song comes to an end.

Julie flashes her a delighted smile, all innocence and blonde curls. “Just checking you're really here. I can hardly believe that Hecate Hardbroom actually knows how to have fun.”

“That's my quota for the day,” she says dryly, and is about to retreat back to her corner when a familiar hand slips into hers.

Pippa.

She's wearing a bright pink tea dress, flared out at the waist, that flutters and waves around her legs, and if those legs are slightly unsteady then...well. This is why she's here, Hecate reminds herself. To make sure that everybody gets home safely.

“You can't leave until you've danced with me,” Pippa announces brightly.

Next to her, Julie snorts; Hecate rolls her eyes. “If you were capable of dancing, Pippa Pentangle, I might consider it. As it is....”

Whatever smart retort Pippa might have managed is ruined by her collapsing into Hecate's embrace with what little grace remains to her and staying there; she rests her head on her shoulder and giggles, swaying gently out of time to the music.

Julie's expression is one of mixed pleading and amusement, and Hecate resigns herself to her fate.

“I'll take her home,” she says, holding Pippa up with an arm around her waist. “I was about to leave anyway.”

Alcohol, it turns out, only makes Pippa happier. She giggles the whole way home, one arm familiarly around Hecate's shoulders, and it takes all of Hecate's concentration to keep them from spilling off the pavement and into the road every time she stumbles in her pink heels. It takes them twice as long as it should to get back, and by the time they clatter in through the side door to the dormitories it's almost eleven o'clock; Pippa half-falls, half-leans against the hallway wall, face so luminous with happiness that it almost hurts to look at her.

There's no way she's getting them all the way up three rickety flights of stairs to Pippa's bedroom without disaster, so she bundles her into the ground floor room she shares with Julie, sits her on the edge of the bed - “Don't you dare be sick.” - and helps her off with her shoes, lies her down and tucks the covers around her her, party dress and all.

Pippa smiles up at her, soft and warm and completely intoxicated. “Did you know,” she murmurs, voice heavy with alcohol and sleep, “did you know you're beautiful?”

“It's pitch black,” she whispers back eventually. “You can't possibly tell.”

But Pippa just laughs, settles down into the pillow, and closes her eyes.

Hecate creeps upstairs to sleep, fitfully and distractedly, under covers that smell faintly of Pippa's perfume.

*

If Julie is surprised by her companion when she wakes the next morning then she says nothing; they come into breakfast together laughing as if they've been friends for years, and settle themselves either side of Hecate at the table, leaning across her to pass the toast, butter, coffee, sugar...until she rolls her eyes and grumbles (only a little bad-tempered) that they could at least remember their manners, and that yes, she would like a cup of coffee, if Pippa would be so kind.

Pippa laughs, and Julie- Julie looks at her as if she's just deciphered a particularly fiendish code.

Hecate ignores her, butters a second, slightly cold, slice of toast, and lets Pippa pour her coffee.

*

Life settles into an odd sort of rhythm after that: early mornings, long days, and evenings spent laughing with Julie and Pippa over weak tea and Miss Cackle's shortbreads, the tea leaves inevitably on their third or fourth use.

She should have known it couldn't last.

*

“You and Pippa,” Julie says into the silent darkness of a Saturday night.

Almost asleep, Hecate is jolted into sharp wakefulness. “What about us?”

“She's...nice,” Julie offers, almost shyly. “Do you think she's nice?”

“I suppose so. I hadn't really thought about it.”

For a minute or two there's nothing but regular breathing from the other bed and Hecate begins to relax, thinks that maybe that's an end to it. Closes her eyes and deliberately pushes all thought of Pippa to the back of her mind.

“When I was sixteen,” Julie says tentatively, “my mother ran away to France with my governess.” When she receives no reply, she continues, matter of fact. “It caused quite the scandal. But they're still very happy together – in Switzerland, last I heard.”

Hecate lies very still. “I'm not-”

“I'm not saying you are.” Julie speaks carefully, slowly, in marked contrast to her usual excited babble. “I'm just saying...it's possible.”

The silence lies thick and heavy, and Hecate stays awake long after her room-mate has fallen asleep. When she finally drifts off, she dreams of Pippa, soft hair and bright lipstick and skin smooth beneath her fingers; she wakes feeling like she's betrayed something.

*

She asks Miss Cackle to be transferred the next day, schooling her expression into polite neutrality as she explains that she doesn't feel she fits in, doesn't feel she's doing her bit, feels she should really be reassigned somewhere she can do more good – and Miss Cackle lets her get all the way through her well-rehearsed speech before peering at her over the top of her reading glasses and asking, “Does this have something to do with Pippa Pentangle?”

“I don't know what you mean,” Hecate says quickly – too quickly, it seems, because Miss Cackle is raising an eyebrow, expression disbelieving.

“I am not blind, Miss Hardbroom.” Her voice is sharp but kind, an uncanny blend of compassion and annoyance. “But that is, of course, your secret to keep.” She considers her for a moment, weighing the relative risk of her next few words, and sighs. “Just remember, dear, you wouldn't be the first to feel that way, and nor will you be judged for it in here. And I wouldn't usually countenance such a request, but as it happens, the Birmingham office is short of women with a background in chemistry – you will leave in the morning.”

A small sigh and the slight relaxation of her shoulders are all the signs of relief that Hecate allows herself. “Thank you, Miss Cackle” she murmurs, deliberately not meeting her eyes, and turns to leave.

She's almost at the door when Miss Cackle calls her name; she turns, half-afraid that she is about to be damned for even the tiniest drop of half-truth that has dripped from her lips. But Ada is smiling, regarding her with an infuriating mix of compassion and knowledge: “Before all this – before the war – what did you do?”

“I was training to be a teacher,” Hecate says quietly.

“Yes, I was sure I'd remembered that right.,” she says. “The school's closed for the moment, of course, all my girls have been evacuated, but when this is all over I intend to reopen somewhere else. Come and find me, Miss Hardbroom. Good teachers are few and far between.”

She leaves torn between hope and despair.

*

She tells Julie that night as they lie pretending to be comfortable in their hard narrow beds, remains stubbornly silent when she asks whether it's because of Pippa, doesn't speak when Julie climbs into bed next to her, half falling off the edge, and puts her arms around her.

“It's okay,” Julie whispers into her hair.

Her tears are silent as well, and come morning she is composed again, pink lipstick and snow-pale powder covering the cracks.

Leaving, it turns out, is surprisingly easy. She hugs Julie, promises to write, and gets in the taxi before Pippa has even come down for breakfast. Doesn't look back.

 

Fifteen Years Later

 

Miss Cackle's Academy, it turned out, relocated after the war into what its headmistress laughingly calls a castle, and has developed into a small but well-funded girls' boarding school with a broad and progressive curriculum. Hecate has been the science teacher there for eleven years, deputy headmistress for five of those: she runs her classroom with the rigidity and discipline of a wartime manoeuvre, and her girls' results are the best in the county.

Julie Hubble sends her daughter there – Mildred, a sweet, clumsy little girl the spitting image of her dead father – and they reconnect over weekly cake and tea; somehow, their closeness has weathered fifteen years by post (and a few ill-judged remarks on Hecate's part regarding Mildred's abysmal science marks).

Life is, in fact, almost good.

She's having tea with Miss Cackle – with Ada – shortbreads and digestive biscuits and tea strong enough that she can feel her heart beat marginally faster - when Ada puts her teacup down, looks seriously at her through delicate glasses. “Hecate, my dear,” she begins, and something in the softness of her voice makes Hecate sit up straighter

“I would have told you sooner,” Ada continues, “but we've only just agreed on the details.”

“Told me what?” There is iron control in her voice.

“We're co-hosting the county science fair,” Ada says gently. “With Miss Pentangle's school.”

Any control she might have had over her voice slips away. “Pippa,” she breathes, and finds to her utter dismay and embarrassment that her eyes are wet with sudden tears.

Her headmistress and best friend leans forward, pats her on the arm, and hands her a clean handkerchief, pale pink and edged with frothy lace; Hecate regards it for a moment with the same level of condescension she gives a particularly gruesome biology practical, then dabs carefully at the tears that still threaten to spill over.

“I don't presume to know exactly what happened,” Ada says, still in that soft, sympathetic voice she usually reserves for homesick first years, “but- Hecate, dear, it's been fifteen years. Surely it's time to face the past, rather than run from it?”

Hecate stares at her, keenly aware that her usual retort is missing from the tip of her tongue but unable to think of anything save Pippa – her bright laugh, her soft hands, the sparkle in her eyes. Did that sparkle leave, she wonders, even for a second, when she found out Hecate had left? All at once, the urge to cry overwhelms her; she stands abruptly and excuses herself, rushes out of Ada's sitting room and down the corridor to her own rooms. Cries herself to sleep, and dreams of Pippa.

*

The science fair is a triumph, packed full of students and parents from schools across the entire county, and Ada is bursting with pride, both for her pupils and for her deputy, who has carried the entire thing off without once losing her poise.

Mildred has been under strict instructions to keep away from the demonstrations, but Hecate is sure she saw her at Pippa's table, heating something over a bunsen burner; anyone else and she would have gone over, but surely – surely – Pippa can handle an enthusiastically clumsy pupil without interference.

They haven't spoken a word beyond polite formalities, and now, as the hall finally empties of guests, it's Julie who rolls her eyes at the fourth hour of them alternating between glares and stolen glances from opposite sides of the room, grabs Hecate's arm, and marches her over to where Pippa is standing frozen to the spot. “This is ridiculous ,” she says, as close to anger as either of them have ever seen her. “In the name of everything holy would the two of you please talk to each other!”

Hecate's mask slips, and for the briefest moment she stares at Pippa with fifteen years of confusion and regret shining out of her eyes – but as quickly as it happened it's over, the barriers rebuilt. “Follow me,” she says, expressionless, and leads Pippa from the hall.

Across the room, Miss Cackle and Julie exchange worried glances.

*

They end up in Hecate's sitting room, smaller and emptier than Ada's but no less homely for it, and Hecate regrets the impulse almost immediately, silently curses Julie and her eternal need to interfere. She would have been perfectly happy to continue as she was, she tells herself, even as her treacherous hands align and realign the papers on her desk, push at the piles of books until their edges line up perfectly, and then automatically move everything off-kilter again; she wonders whether, if she wished hard enough, she could simply...disappear.

“I thought we were friends,” Pippa blurts into the awkward silence, elaborates at the lack of response: “Back then. I thought-”

Hecate stares at the floor.

“I thought you liked me,” Pippa says, and it's not a young woman's petulant whine but rather something deeper, more serious, brimming with implications.

For the first time in fifteen years, Hecate meets her eyes. “I did,” she says. “I just- you had so many friends. I didn't think it would matter.” It's not entirely a lie, and still, the truth pulls at her throat, but she's built a fragile life from the wreckage of the war and not even Pippa's smile – as kind and as beautiful as she remembers – can make her brave enough to risk it, to speak a single word of the honesty that could ruin her.

Pippa, it turns out, has still not learned to keep her own secrets – or perhaps she simply chooses not to. Either way, she takes one step closer and smiles up at Hecate as if the past decade and a half has been a mere caesura, lets the implications overflow: “I didn't want them. I wanted you.”

“But- I thought-”

“You thought what? That because you were the sensible, serious one I wouldn't want to spend time with you?”

Hecate shakes her head, tears prickling at her eyes, and presses her lips together in a desperate attempt to hide their trembling. “I thought it was easier to leave than to stay and wait for you to hate me.”

“Hate you?!” She sounds genuinely shocked. “Hecate, what on earth do you mean?”

But Hecate stands still, gathering what little remains of her dignity around her like armour, and wills Pippa to read the truth in her eyes, spare her the impossibility of explaining.

She sees the exact moment comprehension dawns, looks away before the realisation can crystallise into anger, or fear, or disgust.

“You-” Now, when it matters, Pippa's bravery has deserted her. “You really-”

The air in the room is suddenly heavy, like cotton wool in her lungs; her head is spinning, her throat aches with repressed tears, and everything is finally, awfully, too much. She can't look at Pippa, can't bear to see the expression on her face, so she pushes past her, heads straight for the closed door.

Soft fingers catch at her wrist – “Wait.” – and she can't help herself (has never been able to help herself), stops, turns slowly back around to find Pippa staring up at her with something approaching wonder written across her features. Tries to remember how to breathe.

“I was in love with you,” Pippa says quietly, her eyes never leaving Hecate's face. “And I think- I think you were in love with me.”

It's all Hecate can do to nod.

The gentle touch of Pippa's hand on her wrist transforms as if by magic into soft fingers laced with hers: “Do you think...maybe...we could let ourselves have what we were denied all those years ago?”.

“I should never have left,” Hecate whispers.

“No running away this time.” Pippa is smiling at her, older and more sophisticated now, but the familiar, irrepressible sparkle is dancing in her eyes, and suddenly it's the most natural thing in the world for Hecate to lean down and kiss her.

She's sunshine and laughter and flowers against her lips, and it's everything Hecate has been dreaming of for the past fifteen years.

It's perfect.