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in time of war

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“Dr McBrien?” There’s the soft rap rap rap of gloved knuckles on the door jamb to accompany the query and Jean, absorbed in her work, jumps at the crisp voice from the door to her office -- left open so her girls would know she could be interrupted. She looks up to see Hilda Pierce standing in the doorway.

It isn’t as though Jean is unaware that Miss Pierce had arrived at Bletchley that morning. She had seen the car pull up and the tall figure, in her usual tailored wool suit and sensible shoes, step out into the misting rain. Jean had stood, a heartbeat too long, at the window and watched Miss Pierce's retreat into the main house. Had hoped, without expectation, that Miss Pierce might look across the yard and seen Jean standing there. Had hoped that, if she did so, Jean might see some flicker of recognition on Miss Pierce’s face.

These visits from Miss Pierce were often fleeting, closed-door affairs at which Jean’s presence was rarely required. When she had been called in, to explain an algorithm or report on progress made, her part was brief and she was dismissed before the meeting ended. Still -- she recalled, sometimes (in the evening as she performed a brisk toilette in the WC before retiring to her cell of a room) the way Miss Pierce had interrupted Major Shurleff with a crisp “I remember Dr McBrien,” the second time she was introduced. “What do you have for me, McBrien?” ignoring the men sitting at the table beside her. How Miss Pierce had looked at Jean, when she said it, with a slight smile on her lips. Jean didn’t think Miss Pierce was a woman of many smiles.

So Jean had stood at the window that morning, allowing herself to watch Miss Pierce stride across the gravel drive through the rain, until Miss Pierce was ushered inside the main house by the young sergeant on duty. Then, with a soft inward sigh, Jean had returned to her desk. She had assumed this would be the last she would see of Miss Pierce on this particular visit.

Instead, here was Miss Pierce standing before her, a slim briefcase in one gloved hand and the other hand still raised as if she intended to repeat her knock if no answer was forthcoming.

“Miss Pierce,” Jean pushes back her chair and stands. “What a --”she puts a hand to her hair, pushing a few strands away from her face. A nervous habit. Damn. “What a pleasure to see you. I wasn't told to expect --”

“No.” There’s that hint of a smile again. Jean feels her cheeks heat and closes her eyes briefly against the flutter of hope that hint brings with it.

“Well, I wasn’t expecting my car to develop mechanical trouble,” Miss Pierce says, turning slightly to survey the room behind her, eyes flickering over Jean's girls bent to their tasks -- as absorbed in their work as Jean had been moments before. She turns back. “Apparently, the repairs require a part that cannot be delivered here until the morning. No other transport is available so I will be remaining here until the morning. The major said room could be made for me in the dormitory?”

Jean does a quick mental inventory of the rooms set aside for the women at Bletchley. Of course, there were staff responsible for the cooking and cleaning, and Major Shurtleff -- with whom Miss Pierce had likely been meeting -- could have summoned Mrs Frederickson the housekeeper to give instructions. But he has a habit of delegating to Jean as if she were responsible for the domestic arrangements. At any other time, Jean would have sent him a crisp reminder that such errands pulled her away from the work she had been hired to oversee. This time, however, she almost forgives him for sending Hilda to stand at her elbow.

“We’ve no private rooms, I’m afraid,” she says. The work Hilda Pierce does is beyond her own classification and Jean has seen the way the woman walks into a room of officers and takes charge; she imagines Miss Pierce’s accommodations in London -- even in wartime -- are more commodious than Bletchley can provide. “But Miss Fletcher has gone to attend to some family matters in York. If you don't mind sharing a room...?”

Miss Pierce waves this concern away. “Of course,” she says. “I quite understand the exigency of the case. I’ve certainly had worse during the air raids.” She looks around the room with the air of someone already moving on from the topic at hand. “Now, is there a desk I might borrow for the afternoon?”

Jean leaves Miss Pierce bent over a sheaf of typewritten reports at her own desk -- only reasonable, she tells herself, as she crosses the yard, since her own office has more privacy than the computers’ room. The rainstorm has blown through leaving puddles of muddy water on the gravel drive. The sun shines down, cold, on trees that look barer every morning. She finds Mrs Frederickson in the kitchen going over the fortnightly menus and supply inventory with Mrs Pritchard, the cook.

“Miss Pierce will be staying the night,” she says. “And I suppose her driver will, too.” Major Shurleff had likely forgotten about the driver.

“Two more mouths to feed,” Cook says. “Right.”

“It’ll be cots in the dormitory, Mrs Frederickson says, already beginning to write herself a note. “I’ll send Sally up with clean linens before tea.”

“Give Miss Pierce my room,” Jean says, hearing her mother’s fastidious sense of hospitality in the words. “I’ll sleep with the girls in the East Wing.” She doesn't pay attention to the shiver of pleasure she feels thinking about Hilda slipping between clean sheets in her own room beneath the eaves. That way foolishness lies. Foolishness and distraction from the task at hand.

She pauses outside the door to her office under the pretext of waiting for Miss Pierce to finish a telephone call before interrupting. She stands beside the partition that separates her office from the main work area and looks over a series of calculations Susan brings to her for review, then answers a question of Millie’s. As she speaks with them Jean is conscious of Miss Pierce watching her through the open door, studying her with a sharp, considering gaze.
Miss Pierce is sitting in Jean’s desk chair with the telephone to her ear, mostly listening and, occasionally, giving what sound (if the muffled tone is indicative) like firm instructions. She speaks with an decisiveness that Jean finds entirely too seductive. With Miss Pierce’s eyes on her as she speaks into the phone it is an easy thing to imagine that quiet authority deployed in...other contexts. As a woman who has learned the importance of high expectations, Jean appreciates women who expect much from Jean herself, in full confidence that she can deliver.

Dr McBrien she remembers Miss Pierce saying, without hesitation, their first meeting and every meeting thereafter. Even the major, on occasion, had to be reminded of her credentials; he still seemed faintly affronted that a woman of her age remained unattached to a man whose social standing would have been immediately clear to him, whose place in relation to the major himself would have established Jean’s place in the social hierarchy. Her spinsterhood made her dismissable, her expertise made her indispensable. He was forced to deal with her, yet made his discomfort an obvious part of their every interaction.

Miss Pierce, being an unattached woman herself, appeared to suffer from no such confusion. She treated Jean’s reports with respect, asked the questions Jean anticipated she would ask, and moved on as if Jean's work were ordinary. And that itself is extraordinary.

On the other side of the glass Miss Pierce hangs up the telephone and stands. She has taken off her hat and gloves and Jean notices with appreciation the near bob, the slight wave, the tiny pearl earrings. Miss Pierce crosses to the door and opens it.

“I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting. Outside your own office, too.”

Jean shakes her head, even as she feels her cheeks flush. “That’s quite all right, Miss Pierce. The girls keep me busy. If I could just retrieve my reading glasses?”

“Of course,” Miss Pierce, stepping aside. “I was just going to ask someone to point me to the WC?”

Jean points down the hall toward the tiny loo.

“Thank you,” Miss Pierce says as they exchange places, brushing passed one another in the doorway. Jean feels the warmth of Miss Pierce’s bosom against her shoulder and damn it damn it damn it there’s that blush again. Miss Pierce is sure to notice, even if Jean keeps her head down and thinks of other, less enticing things. “Oh, and Dr McBrien?”

Jean turns her head. “Yes?”

“It’s Hilda. Miss Pierce rather makes one feel like a secretary.”

“Ma’am,” Jean responds, reflexively, then, “Hilda, I mean -- yes. And it’s Jean.”

Hilda smiles at that, not a small smile at all, and Jean wonders how many here at Bletchley have felt the warmth of that smile turned upon them. She doesn’t think many. She can’t picture it, for example, directed at the major.

“Jean,” then, Hilda says. “And when do you and the girls usually break for tea? I thought a walk around the grounds might be pleasant. Would you care to join me?”