"Ah, Gordon," Josh said, with a vague air of triumph at having remembered the name of someone he saw several times every day. "I managed to get a special assignment for you."
"Not more homework," Gordon groaned, laying his head down on the scraps of paper that contained the convoluted ideas he'd had for decoding German messages.
"We keep telling you, Gordon," Archie said. "It's not homework, it's actual work."
Gordon briefly thought about the fellows in his class at school who'd been absolutely rubbish at maths but who'd been jolly good at cricket. He bet one of them could have taken a cricket bat and knocked the heads off each an every one of the staff of Hut 33 with no problems at all. Except Minka of course. He didn't want to knock her head off, and it wouldn't be an easy thing to do anyway. He looked sadly up at Josh.
"What work, Josh?"
"It's jolly interesting! You see, it turns out there's some international team of allied experts attending a meeting in the town, and –"
" – and we're to keep well out of sight, as usual?" Archie said.
"Well, you could keep out of sight," Charles said. "You don't even speak English. I, on the other hand, speak many languages and could no doubt be better employed in interpreting for the foreign experts than in staying in this freezing hut a moment longer."
"Sorry, Charles," Archie sniped. "They're Allies, didn't you hear? Your perfect Berlin German won't be needed."
"They probably won't be down here at all," Josh said, "we're rather hard to find, here in Hut 33. It's a very confusing layout, you know."
"It is odd, the way we're located right after Hut 32," Charles agreed.
"Anyway," Josh said cheerily, "they'll want to see a bit of entertainment, some fine old English culture, so they've all been invited to the Boxing Day hunt."
"Excellent," Charles said, "I'll be attending as well, I must say I'm looking forward to some fresh air and good clean fun ending in a bloody death."
"You really are the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible," Archie said. "One of your literary lads said that, Charles."
"Heavens," Charles mused. "A Geordie communist quoting an Irishman – it's only to be expected, really."
"A homosexual, Oxford-educated Irishman – poor bugger never stood a chance."
"Really?" Charles said, "I suppose you think if Oscar Wilde had only gone to the alleged institution of higher learning you attended he could have avoided all the unpleasantness?"
"The University of Manchester is not an allegeduniversity!"
"Maybe not if one views it from Newcastle -"
"The thing is, Gordon," Josh said, seeming not to notice that Archie was about to introduce Charles' head to a very proletarian and mass-produced chair, "it turns out that one of them has brought his little brother along. A nice little field trip for the young chap, I suppose. Just this morning Colonel Standring was saying, What the blazes are we to do with a damn foreign twelve-year-old, Featherstonehaugh-Marshall? He'd fall off his horse, break his neck and cause a diplomatic incident! and I said, Gosh, what luck, sir, one of the eggheads in Hut 33 is a twelve-year-old, a child genius! They'll get along famously! The colonel was delighted!" He beamed at everyone. Archie and Charles met each other's eyes and for once started to laugh instead of to fight.
Gordon felt a strangely sinking sensation. "I'm not twelve, Josh," he said. "I'm seventeen."
"Oh," Josh said. He clearly didn't see the problem at all. "Jolly good."
"I don't have anything in common with a little boy!"
"You still wear short trousers," Archie said.
"Yes," Charles said. "You can form a firm friendship over scabbed knees and fallen-down socks."
Gordon pulled his socks up. "This isn't fair," he said.
"Sounds like a twelve-year-old to me," Archie smirked. "Well done, Josh!"
Gordon rested his head on the table again. This definitely wasn't fair.
Gordon shuffled back and forth in the small and depressing park where Josh had suggested he could play football with the foreign boy, kicking up piles of half-rotten leaves and the occasional stone. He wondered if he could accidentally on purpose kick a stone into Josh's head and then blame this, this kid they were saddling him with. Honestly, he thought, it was bad enough that he hadn't been let go home for Christmas, but to have to baby-sit on Boxing Day? Bah, he thought. Humbug. He looked down at his shoes in despair – they were scuffed and dirty, as if he were a kid who'd just been kicking through leaves and stones, rather than a sensible older man who was a respectable code breaker for the government. He crouched down to wipe his shoes as best he could with his handkerchief.
"Ah, Gordon, there you are," Josh's voice rang out cheerfully. "Trying to look smaller so you don't intimidate the little chap, eh? Good show!"
Gordon closed his eyes, recited Pi rapidly to fifty places and stood up. "Not really," he said.
Josh clearly wasn't listening at all. He pulled a fair-haired boy out from behind him and gave him a friendly shake by the shoulders. "This is Francis!" he said. "I'm sure you'll have lots of fun together, off exploring little fields, climbing trees and all the other sorts of things boys get up to when they're out of their elders' sight." He paused, and looked a little worried. "Maybe not all the sorts of things boys get up to," he said. "No homosexualism, that's what Pater always said when I was twelve. Of course, that sort of thing doesn't really seem an issue till one's dreaming about the captain of the first XI night after night and writing little poems to him in one's prep notebooks." He looked a little confused and smiled vaguely at them both. "Have fun, chaps! I'll see you after the hunt!" he said, and wandered off to get lost on his way back to the officers' mess.
Gordon tried to will the flaming blush from his cheeks and wished very earnestly for death, or failing that for this Francis fellow to be deaf or not to understand English at all. He felt that sadly Francis probably did understand English, given the horrible dark red his cheeks had gone and the way he wouldn't meet Gordon's eyes. For that matter he probably was English, Gordon thought. It wasn't as if Josh ever got anything right ever. For a start, Francis was thin and small looking, but he was clearly older than twelve. He was also wearing long trousers, which put Gordon at an immediate social disadvantage.
"Hello, Francis," Gordon said. "I'm Gordon." He held out a hand. After an insultingly long time, Francis shook it.
"Hello," he said. There was a long, long pause. "My name not Francis," he said.
Gordon closed his eyes briefly. Bloody Josh. "Oh," he said glumly, looking at his new friend again. "What is it?" He thought about the boy's accent. "You're Polish! I know a Polish girl, she's lovely!"
"No. Not Polish."
There was another long and awkward silence. Gordon wished one of them was twelve, and they could sort this sort of thing out by pushing each other over for a few minutes and then running off to eat cake. If only all the ingredients for cakes hadn't been rationed for years. "If you're not Polish," he said, "then where are you from?"
"Latvia. I Latvia."
"No, see that's a proper noun," Gordon said helpfully. "You want an adjective, Latvian. You really should try to speak proper English; we're the biggest empire in the world, you know, and that's not something that's going to change any time soon."
The boy gave him a dirty look. "That is why Germany kicks England in - proper English word is arse, yes?"
Gordon was so outraged he let his twelve-year-old self take over, and pushed the boy hard. The boy staggered back, then pushed Gordon equally as hard. Gordon decided that in the interests of diplomacy he should really dunk the brat face first into some rotten leaves and grabbed him, raising a hand to seize his head. The boy shrank back, shaking, tears starting up pre-emptively in his eyes.
"Please! Don't hit!"
Gordon lowered his hand. "I wasn't going to," he said weakly. "Don't – don't be a cry baby." The boy kept snivelling, and Gordon decided that if he was some foreign expert's brother he'd probably gone to the foreign equivalent of a public school to be terrorised by older boys. Gordon gave silent thanks for having attended a grammar school he could escape from at the end of the day and that he had escaped from permanently years before his classmates. "Look," he said, "Why don't you come to my lodgings and we'll see if my landlady has anything nice to eat? She made mince pies for Christmas day, there are probably a few left over, unless the others have discovered where I hid them. She won't give you anything stronger than lemonade to drink, though, not unless you're a lot older than you look."
The boy looked at him askance, then a tiny smile crept onto his face. "Yes. I am older than I look. Fifteen. "
"Not old enough," Gordon said. "Anyway, it doesn't matter, she waters the beer down to the strength of lemonade, Archie says. Come on – what is your name, you never said?"
"That doesn't sound like "Francis" at all."
"No. Your Joshua is – umm, proper English word is idiot, yes?"
"Yes," Gordon agreed wholeheartedly.
"Aha!" Gordon exclaimed in triumph, finding the tin box still hidden under the loose floorboard in his room. "Here we are –" He held out the box to Raivis who gingerly looked inside. "Go on, have one," Gordon said. "They're – well, they're not bad." Raivis took one and nibbled on it with every indication of enjoyment, and Gordon basked in the feeling of being an accomplished host.
"Hah! Minka know you hid mince pies!" Minka said, stepping out from behind the curtains.
"Gah!" Gordon shrieked, his hand jerking so the last mince pie flew out of the box and landed neatly in Minka's hand. "Minka, please - " he started. Then, "Raivis? Oh, dear."
"Hah, little Latvian boy faint like tiny flower faced with Baltic winter," Minka scoffed, stepping over Raivis' recumbent form, mince pie firmly in hand. She paused to take the half-eaten mince pie as well. "Old Polish saying, mince pie of enemy taste sweet as honey," she said.
"I didn't know Poland and Latvia were enemies," Gordon said, ineffectually sprinkling water from a glass on Raivis' face.
"Pah, you not see epic football matches. Polish team win, always," Minka said. She leant over, took the glass of water from Gordon's hand and poured it directly into Raivis' face, nodding as he sputtered back awake. "Wakey-wakey, Minka find you vole later for dinner," she said mockingly.
Raivis coughed and shivered, not meeting anyone's eyes. "Is nothing wrong with vole," he said. "Not like mole. Mole-eating filthy Polish habit, Oh, look at me, I like totally eat blind fuzzy worm eater."
"Hah!" Minka said. "We talk politics, excellent. Oh, look at me, my country not even independent ever, waaaah-waaaah."
Raivis covered his face with his hands and rocked back and forth, making a sound that Gordon could only describe as "keening." He shuddered when Gordon patted his shoulder comfortingly and seemed ready to faint again.
"He's some foreign expert's brother," Gordon said despairingly. "I'm supposed to be entertaining him, not making him cry."
"Huh," Minka shrugged. "You not make him cry. Minka make him cry." She hauled Raivis up. "We go for walk in cold," she said. "Make man of you – Latvian man, but better than nothing."
"Minka!" Gordon said in jealous sorrow. "You said you'd make a man out of me!"
"Some other time, when sun comes back," Minka said. "For now, only healthy walk. Out, everyone out. Now we mock English food, like toad-in-hole and spotted dick. You think that made from genitals of bull," she said to Raivis, and shook her head sadly. "No, is nothing so tasty."
"Well, toad-in-the-hole isn't made out of actual toads – " Gordon said confidently.
"Huh, Minka make it wrong last time Minka cook lunch? No one complain at time."
Gordon blanched. "Josh said he was taking part in a hunt," he said, to take his mind off the fact he had had seconds of Minka's toad-in-the-hole. "At least no one will be eating that, I mean maybe moles and voles get eaten in some places, but who'd eat a fox?"
Minka and Raivis looked at him as if he were very naïve in the ways of the world. "Estonians," they chorused.
Minka chivvied them both down the stairs and out into the street. "Walk! Get appetite for lunch." She marched them down the road and out of the town, whipping their legs with brambles if they slowed down too much. "Faster!"
"Joshua say you are very clever boy," Raivis panted, trying to avoid being whipped. He looked at Gordon in admiration, his bright blue eyes wide and childish.
"Oh," Gordon said modestly, "I'm sure he was just being nice. He doesn't actually understand what an IQ of 196 actually means."
"He say you work out German codes."
"He's not supposed to tell people that! Erm, I mean, I work on government statistics."
"Statistics need genius at mathematics? Tell me about codes, Gordon."
"You tell him, Gordon," Minka said. "I kill him."
"No! No killing! Latvian army fight for Allies, now!"
"They do?" Gordon said. He hadn't known Latvia had an army. Come to that, he wasn't exactly clear on where Latvia was, though he felt it would be rude to admit that at this stage.
"Is true," Minka said, idly slashing them both across the calves. "Latvia belong to Soviet Union, Soviet Union join Allies. Pah, Minka hate Soviets! Like Nazi pig-dogs, only with worse uniforms! Little Latvian boy allowed to live, if he walk faster."
"Show me where you work on codes," Raivis said hopefully. "I very impressed with your air of intelligence and cosmopolitan views from being older boy."
Gordon thought about it. It seemed perfectly natural, and he couldn't help but think that he was a good influence on Raivis, his natural English sense of reserve and hard work stopping all that continental nonsense about crying and fainting. "All right," he said. "Minka, you don't mind, do you?"
"Minka not mind, Minka easily evade being shot for treason."
They went to Bletchley Park, walking more quickly now they had a destination in mind. Raivis looked about him at the huts, sometimes peering in the windows if he heard the sound of machines working. Gordon took his arm and pulled him away from peeping too long through the windows of Hut 9 at the overheated and underdressed women operating the machines, towing him to the chilly, chaste safety of Hut 33. He took the key from under the flowerpot by the door, and let them all in.
"Well, this is it," he said. "That's Minka's desk, and that's the table we work on, and that's an electronic calculating machine, though it's quicker just to run the numbers in my head, I find." He rummaged round. "Erm , these are our pencils –"
"And these are your notes?" Raivis said, picking up some papers and reading them.
"Well, yes, but you're not supposed to read them, really. I mean, they're just number sequences and they're really very boring for ordinary people to read and I had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and you haven't done that and those are actually classified, and – oh God," Gordon said, looking at Raivis' face as he scanned page after page of Gordon's carefully written notes on how the enigma codes worked and how he'd personally build a better enigma machine, "are you memorising those? Do you understand them?"
Raivis looked up, shaking slightly as he backed away, notes in hand. "My brother very good with numbers," he said meekly. "He will understand, I just have to deliver them."
"He is spy," Minka said, a pistol suddenly in her hand. "Minka shoot."
"No," Gordon said getting between them. "No, no! He's not a spy, he's just someone's little brother! He –"
Raivis covered his face with his arms as he leapt straight through the window and landed outside running, the notes still in his hands. Gordon looked at the broken glass in astonishment.
"Next time you get in way," Minka said grimly, "Minka shoot through you." She jumped though the broken window. "Come! Is no time for going out door!"
Gordon clambered through carefully as she beckoned impatiently and they ran after Raivis. It was just bad luck that Archie seemed suddenly to have developed Minka's trick of appearing from nowhere, Gordon thought, as Archie came suddenly round the corner of a hut and they crashed into him, all three of them bowling over.
"You see boy?" Minka yelled. "Smaller than Gordon, yellow hair, have fear of death in eyes?"
"Aye," Archie gasped, picking himself up. "He ran that way – why did you say fear of death?"
"Minka kill him," she said. "He is tiny Soviet spy."
"What? Now, Minka –"
"It's true!" Gordon said. "He tricked me into showing him Hut 33 and he stole my notes and jumped out the window!"
"What?" Archie repeated. "How'd he trick you?"
"Pah!" Minka said. "He make big eyes at Gordon, Oh, look at me, I over-awed by clever older boy, in poignant, bittersweet, adolescent homoerotic crush no Englishman can resist!"
"That's not fair!" Gordon said, feeling more than a little resentment about the way Minka's English always improved when she wanted to say something really cutting. "I was supposed to entertain him and keep him busy, and you all laughed at me when Josh made me do it and - and everything is Josh's fault!"
"Argue later, shoot tiny spy now," Minka said, and led the chase once more.
In the distance, they could see Raivis sprinting across a field and bounding over a gate in a way that said either that Latvian schools put a great deal of emphasis on cross country running, or that the threat of being shot was a universal motivator. Not wanting to be shot for delaying Minka any further, Gordon discovered it was quite a motivation for him as well, and by dint of longer legs, more adult stamina and outright fear of finding out what a Polish resistance fighter might do when she was really annoyed, he and Archie managed to keep up with Minka and slowly, slowly to gain ground on Raivis. With a last burst of speed, Gordon even managed to get a step or two ahead of Minka just after they crashed through a hedge mere seconds behind their quarry and to willingly try, for the first time in his life, a rugby tackle. He and Raivis rolled over and over on the cold, frost-hard earth, and he managed to end up on top.
"Stay there!" he hissed. "I'm hoping she won't really shoot through me!"
"All right!" Raivis whimpered.
"Gordon. Move," Minka said. "Gordon, I not joking, move."
"Please, Minka, I'll get into awful trouble if you kill him," Gordon said. "Can't you just give him a stern talking-to?"
"Yes," Minka said reasonably. "I take him behind that tree, give him stern talking to. You come, bury body."
"Minka –" Archie gasped, "he's just a lad. Let the army lads deal with it." He bent over, hands on knees, gasping for breath. "I need a fag," he said, fishing a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. "Ah, would you look at that! They're all squashed from you and Gordon falling on me!"
"Minka not fall, you get in way!"
Gordon sighed with relief as the ensuing argument seemed likely to defuse at least some of Minka's murderous mood, then blinked as a streak of red-brown shot across his field of vision. "What was that?" he said.
There was an odd noise, a high yelping coming closer and closer.
"What is that?" Raivis said, under him.
A great many white and brown hounds raced past them, all giving tongue loudly.
"Er," Archie said as the ground began to reverberate with the sound of hooves, and the sound of hunting horns and cries of "Tally ho!" cut the air. He turned to look behind them, his eyes widening. "Oh my God! Everyone get down!"
He and Minka dropped to the earth as Gordon unwisely lifted himself a little off Raivis to see what was happening. He squeaked in fright as, directly over his head, a massive grey horse cleared the hedge to land a foot or so beyond him, its hooves sending up sprays of turf into his face. There was a blessed moment of peace, and then horse after horse was sailing over his head as he tried to scurry backwards to the illusory safety of the hedge where Archie and Minka were huddled. He looked back to see Raivis scramble to his feet and run a few steps alongside one of the horses, holding up the notes to its rider. The young man seized the notes and was gone in pursuit of the fox.
Gordon watched the horses stream across the field, Raivis looking after them.
"No point in shooting me now," Raivis said over his shoulder.
"There is personal satisfaction," Minka said, half-rising. Beside her Archie unwisely stood up fully and was shouldered aside as the last of the horses thumped down over the hedge, one after the other.
"Out of the way, man!" Charles yelled. He pulled his horse round and glared at them. "Oh, it's you – I should have known you'd try to wreck a simple, traditional gentleman's sport, Archie."
"There's nothing sporting in hitting me with a bloody horse!" Archie yelled. "That hurt!"
"You really shouldn't get in the way," the second rider said, revealing himself to be Josh. "These things are dashed difficult to control, you know! Oh, hello, Francis! Having a good time?"
"I would like to go to my brothers, please," Raivis said quickly.
"He is spy! He steal notes from Hut 33!" Minka said. "I shoot him – Charles, Josh, you take corpse on horse, throw it in river."
"You can't shoot him," Charles said. "Not where I can see it, it'll put me off my lunch!"
"The colonel won't like it if you shoot him," Josh said in worry. "Are you sure it's necessary?"
"Yes! Is necessary!"
"Who are you, young man?" Charles said.
"Little brother of Russian guest's aides," Raivis said nervously, keeping Josh's horse between him and Minka's pistol.
"Oh, I met your brothers," Charles said. "Very pleasant young men – though if I'm not mistaken you sound more Latvian than Lithuanian."
"Also, middle brother is Estonian," Raivis said, "we have complicated family. Sir, you stop crazy woman shooting me, you come visit Vilnius, Tallinn, Riga any time you like."
"Charles, you're in danger of accepting a bribe from a spy," Archie said.
"Nonsense. Both his brothers are absolutely charming young men – "
"Oh, aye, there's the public schoolboy coming out!"
" – and the languages of the Baltic coast really do need further study. Right, no one is to shoot this boy, isn't that so, Joshua?"
"Rather," Josh said. "Dashed unsporting really. Not in the spirit of hunting at all! We really should get after that fox, Charles."
"Yes. Quite. Well, we can't leave this poor child surrounded by oiks and gun-happy viragoes," Charles said, and hoisted Raivis up to sit behind him. Without another word he cantered away.
"Bye, chaps!" Josh said happily, and went after him.
Silently, Minka, Archie and Gordon walked back into town.
"I'd really like it if we could get through just one month without committing treason, fraud, theft or anything else grossly immoral," Gordon said, staring morosely into his glass of lemonade. "My mum doesn't like me doing things that are grossly immoral."
"I'm not the one passing notes to a Soviet spy," Archie said.
"I wasn't the one who came up with a plan to defraud President Roosevelt's nephew," Gordon snapped. "Or the plan to buy black market bacon!"
"You were willing to eat it, though," Archie said. "To be fair, you at least don't have close family members in the German army, and I don't think you've gone skiing with the Goerings any time recently."
"So if there's any official trouble," Gordon said slowly.
"We claim that Charles is both a Nazi and a Soviet spy, yes."
"Minka has already painted communist propaganda on the underside of Charles' Bugatti," Minka said.
"Gah!" Archie and Gordon shrieked.
"What good is that?" Gordon said, when he caught his breath.
"For inciting communist fervour in mechanics every three months when he has it tuned up," Minka said. "Is fascist pig-dog make of car, Charles is clearly spy for someone. Also, Minka take window from Hut 12, install in Hut 33."
"Good on you!" Archie grinned. "Let those snobs in Hut 12 feel what it's like for the working man for a change." He raised his glass of beer. "Here's to not working in a draught for once and to staying out of trouble for the rest of the year."
"Is only another five days," Minka said, frowning in puzzlement.
"Better than we've ever done so far!" Archie said.
They clinked their glasses together, and all drank to that.