“Miss McBrien, we'll be requiring some more of your time this week, I'm afraid.”
Jean looked up to see Vera Atkins, assistant to the head of the SOE's F Section, standing in front of Jean's desk, smooth and unflappable as ever. “Yes,” she said politely, “of course, what can I do to help?”
“Other duties prevent me from acting as escorting officer for Miss Leroy before she goes to join the Prosper Circuit. I'd like you to accompany her in my stead.”
“Escorting officer!” Jean set down the Parisian magazine she'd been studying, and did her best to compose her face so that only mild consternation showed. “Well, certainly, if it's needed, but – there's nobody else?”
“You've the best attention to detail of any of the women in the section.” Miss Atkins did not add 'besides myself,' though this was most likely what she meant. “And certainly none of the men could --”
“No, indeed,” agreed Jean hastily, “of course it couldn't be one of the men.” The escorting officer was required to remain constantly with the departing agent in the days before they got on the plane to France, to catch any last-minute crisis and ensure that they were fully prepared for the work that lay ahead. The SOE had not yet fully implemented the bureaucratic machinery for sending women on such operations. Miss Leroy was only the fourth woman to go.
Jean McBrien was not entirely clear on her own opinion of SOE sending women to spy behind the lines – but then, in wartime, one did not have opinions. One did one's duty. “When shall you need me to take charge of Miss Leroy?”
“Tomorrow afternoon. She'll meet you here, at Orchard Court, at seven in the evening. You'll have two days with her before she's due at Tangmere – I ought to be able to meet you there for the final check and take her to the airstrip.” Miss Atkins placed a thick folder on Jean's desk, on top of her magazine. “Here's her file. You ought to be familiar with it before she arrives.”
What Miss Atkins did not say – what perhaps there was no need to say – was that how Jean handled the information in that file over the next forty-eight hours could mean life or death for Nella Leroy, code named Nanette.
According to her file, Nella Leroy was two years older than Jean's forty. Seeing her stride energetically into the F Section offices at Orchard Court, with her curly hair escaping from its pins, Jean would have thought her younger. Perhaps Miss Leroy found the prospect of danger invigorating. “Hullo,” Jean said, standing, and held out her hand. “You likely won't remember me --”
“Of course I do! Miss McBrien, isn't it?” She would have been told Jean's name in any case, but she gave a convincing impression of recalling it naturally. “You're the one who knows absolutely all there is to know about the state of silk and stockings and so forth across the Channel.”
Jean said, “I've been paying a good deal more attention to the state of stockings since we began training women agents.” Miss Leroy's strong face creased in a grin, and Jean glanced over at the clock. It was half-past six. In close to fifty-four hours, Miss Leroy would be strapping into her parachute. “Well – I suppose there's no need for us to hang around in the front office, is there?” she went on briskly.
“None whatsoever. I'd quite like a bite to eat, actually. I was thinking we might pop over to a Lyons Corner House, unless you'd a place in mind.”
“Oh, goodness, no. We can go wherever you'd like –”
“As Heaven knows how long it may be before I get a bite of good British peas again?” Miss Leroy smiled again. “You needn't pamper me, Miss McBrien. With the current rationing, I may eat better in France than I do here.”
“Highly unlikely,” Jean said dryly, thinking of the food tickets she'd seen, and the latest reports from the black market in Paris: 10 francs for a single egg, 250 for a kilo of beef, 1000 for a liter of cooking oil. “You eat up while you can, Miss Leroy. You're on SOE's tab from now on; you may as well enjoy it.”
Miss Leroy took Jean at her word about the food. “You must have spent a good deal of time in France before the war,” she remarked, between bites of a steak that would have been dear enough in peacetime. The new five-shilling menu did come with some benefits, though it was by no means a guarantee that your preferred menu option would be available when you sat down. “Did you ever visit Chateau-Thierry?”
“No, I've never been,” said Jean.
“Did you spend most of your time in Paris, then?”
“I've never been to France, I meant.”
Miss Leroy looked rather taken aback. “Well, I have,” she said, after a moment, “so I know you've got a handle on your stuff. Where do you get it all from?”
Jean allowed herself a small smile, “It's all data, dear,” she answered. “Reading the magazines, advertisements, that sort of thing. Quite dull, really.”
“Oh, don't give me that,” said Miss Leroy. She stabbed a piece of meat with unexpected vehemence. When Jean blinked at her, she said, “I've never had any time for women who put themselves down. I can see you're not dull, Miss McBrien, and certainly your work isn't, but if you're going to go about saying you are for the sake of it, I'm afraid we won't get on together at all.”
“That seems a waste,” said Jean.
Miss Leroy leaned forward, her eyes bright. “Well, I agree, but --”
“I mean, not having any time for women who prefer not to call attention to themselves,” said Jean, mildly. “I'd imagine you miss a good many people of value that way.”
Miss Leroy leaned back, her well-groomed eyebrows shooting up into her hairline. “A scolding!”
Jean wished she could bring herself to be rude enough to point out that Miss Leroy, two years older than herself, was hardly in a position to cast Jean as a stern schoolmistress to her naughty child. “It's only my opinion, of course,” she said instead, and speared an overcooked carrot. While SOE was willing to pay for Miss Leroy to have steak in her last few days before departure, Jean was fairly sure that her meals wouldn't be covered with the same generosity. Restaurant meals might not come out of the ration-book, but five shillings was still five shillings.
“Oh, you're right, of course. It's hypocritical of me, too, as once I'm on the ground I will also certainly be doing my best to hide my considerable light under a bushel.” She grinned. “A great loss to the Nazis, I'm sure.”
“Certainly,” agreed Jean, hiding her discomfiture, and changed the subject. “Are you near finished? We can go over the maps of the area around Chateau-Thierry again, if you'd like. Or perhaps you'd rather go to bed sooner, so as to get an early start? I understand there's a friend you'd like to visit tomorrow.”
“Oh,” said Miss Leroy, “the maps, by all means. Can you stand another few minutes of personal conversation while we finish dinner, do you think, or shall we keep to the topic of geography?”
Jean let out a puff of air through her nostrils, dryly amused in spite of herself. “Perhaps let's keep to geography for now, dear. There's nearly two days left for personal conversation, if it comes to that.”
Though Jean was not entirely sure what she would do or say, if it did come to more personal conversation. Miss Atkins had certainly given her no instructions on that score. An agent departing for France might be expected to be nervous, to have qualms or doubts; an escorting officer might presumably then be expected to be emotionally supportive, though it was difficult to imagine smooth, cool Miss Atkins being particularly emotionally supportive.
It was also becoming difficult to imagine Miss Leroy having qualms or doubts. Jean lay awake for a little time that night in her bed in the Orchard Court flat, looking at the ceiling and listening to Miss Leroy snore. In Miss Leroy's place, less than two days away from landing in occupied France, Jean did not think she would be able to sleep so soundly. But then, it already seemed evident to Jean that she and Miss Leroy did not have much in common with each other at all.
Miss Leroy's friend lived out near Oxford, so Jean arranged for a car and drove her out the next morning, using the time to go over more details of her cover. When she pulled up in front of the house, Jean said, “Now I know I needn't remind you not to say anything about --”
“Of course you needn't,” said Miss Leroy, “and of course you've got to anyways, I know. Don't worry.” She stepped out of the car, and then paused. “Well, are you coming with me?”
“I suppose,” said Jean, a little reluctantly. She hated to intrude on what seemed like it ought to be a private good-bye, but it was in fact her duty to ensure that Miss Leroy's friend did not know it was a good-bye – or at least not such a potentially final one. She got out of the car and followed Miss Leroy up to the door.
“Nella?” The woman who opened was a little older than Miss Leroy, and rather less glamorous – an academic sort, with spectacles and bobbed hair two decades out of date. She took a step towards Miss Leroy, and then paused, looking at Jean.
“Jean McBrien,” said Miss Leroy, casually. “My lift out here. Jean, this is Hildy George.”
Miss George frowned, but finally said, “Won't you come in?”
Jean spent the next hour perched uncomfortably in one of Miss George's stiff armchairs as Miss Leroy and Miss George traded what seemed to Jean to be equally stiff conversation. It was clear they had not seen each other in a year or more. Finally, Miss George glanced over at Jean, lowered her voice a little, and demanded, “Nella, why are you here? I thought you said --”
“I know,” said Miss Leroy. “It's only that I'm about to be sent a little further away, for the war, and – well, I wanted to see you before I left, that's all.” Her eyes flicked to Jean, and then back. “It was a silly impulse.”
Miss George bit her lip, her eyes fixed on Miss Leroy. Jean cleared her throat. “Miss George,” she said, “if I might use your facilities --”
“No, no,” said Miss Leroy, quickly. “Jean, you know we must be getting back.”
This was true; they were due back to Orchard Court that afternoon for a final fitting to ensure that none of the buttons or collars on the clothes prepared for Miss Leroy to wear in France would arouse suspicion by being too English.
“Yes,” said Jean. “Of course. Miss George, it was a pleasure to meet you,” she added as she rose.
Miss Leroy was the first one to break the silence in the car. “All the same,” she said, as though continuing a conversation that had already been going on, “I'm glad I went. We were very good friends, at one time, you know.”
“Yes,” said Jean, her eyes on the road ahead, “I'd rather gathered.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Miss Leroy glance at her. “I suppose it was obvious. Well, you know, it felt as if I ought to be saying some sort of goodbye to somebody. Not to discount you, of course, my dear Miss McBrien, who I'm sure will see me off with all pomp and circumstance. But it isn't quite the same.”
She said it lightly, and Jean thought about the details in Miss Leroy's file: French father and English mother, both long dead; no husband, no children; a cosmetic saleswoman, like her cover would be in France, moving from place to place, never settled. “I was never much of a one for pomp and circumstance,” she said, out loud. “And I expect Miss Atkins will be the one to see you to the airfield in any case. But I'll say goodbye to you however you'd like, Miss Leroy.”
“Well,” said Miss Leroy. “Thanks for that.” And then, after a minute: “But I suppose you should be calling me Nanette, shouldn't you?”
“You're not in France yet,” said Jean.
Once back at Orchard Court, they had to wait a little while in the front before receiving the all-clear to come back into the living quarters. SOE discouraged the agents in preparation from meeting one another before departure, lest they give each other away on the ground. This required a great deal of orchestration when several agents were staying at Orchard Court at once. Jean stationed Miss Leroy in her office, and sat down across from her, facing the door and the hallway that led out of the building. It did not matter if Jean saw Joseph Antelme's face as he passed through the office on his way out. She knew who he was, had researched details for his cover story and the area where he would be landing – and she would be keeping all that knowledge safe in London, with no risk of interrogation by the Gestapo.
It sobered her, to be reminded how much she knew that Miss Leroy did not and could not know. Normally Jean rather enjoyed the feeling of quiet power that always accompanied the accumulation of information, but this time it made her uneasy. The fact that it was necessary did not seem to be enough to make it feel right.
“Miss McBrien,” said Parks, the SOE butler, appearing in the doorway after ushering Antelme and his escorting officer discreetly through the building. “Miss Nanette. If you'll follow me?”
Parks escorted them through the warren of hallways behind the SOE clerical offices back into the room that had been assigned to them, with its two neat beds and deep closet hung with European-tailored shirts, skirts and suit-jackets.
“Now we play dress-up,” remarked Miss Leroy. She wandered over to the closet to inspect the offerings there. “I've tried some of these on before, I know.”
“Have them all out anyway, and let's have a look at them,” said Jean. All the clothes had already been checked for errant English labels, but it never hurt to take extra care over such things. “Miss Pulver will be along in a minute to check the fit and make sure you really look the part.”
The rest of the afternoon passed in a kind of parody of a day out shopping, as Jean and the expert refugee tailor Miss Pulver pooled their collective knowledge to assess which items should be included in 'Nanette's' wardrobe. Miss Leroy struck model poses, flinging a coat dramatically wide or lowering the brim of her hat seductively over her eye. Miss Pulver laughed at Miss Leroy's antics; Jean, who did not usually think of herself as humorless, found increasingly that she wanted to shake her. Miss Leroy was a grown woman, not a girl who could be forgiven for thinking she was setting out on a grand adventure. Did she not understand the danger that she was about to be in?
It was evening by the time Miss Pulver left, escorted out by Parks. “Well!” said Miss Leroy, to the closet of Parisian clothes. “Ain't we had fun!” She shrugged off the last jacket she'd been trying on and folded it carefully up, her movements as economical as they'd been exaggerated a few moments ago. Jean pressed her lips together and said nothing.
At this point, Park returned to ask if they'd want to be going out that evening.
“Could we possibly have food sent up, Parks?” said Miss Leroy.
Parks assured them that this would be done, and disappeared again to orchestrate the arrival of their dinner around Joseph Antelme's comings and goings.
“It's your last night before the drop,” said Jean, once he'd gone. “You don't want to see the city again?”
Miss Leroy shrugged. “London will still be here when I get back.” She gave Jean an ironic look, as if daring her to contradict her. When Jean stayed silent, she went on, gaily, “And of course we've still plenty of work to do, haven't we? You never can have too much of geography.”
It wasn't until they were getting ready for bed that night that Miss Leroy, unbuttoning her blouse, said, “You don't quite approve of me, Miss McBrien, do you?”
Jean said, “I think that's putting it rather strongly.” She got into her bed and pulled the covers up around her waist, considering what she ought to say. She did not want Miss Leroy to spend her last day in the country feeling as if she was already under attack. “I suppose I'm having difficulty imagining myself in your shoes. But certainly I think you're very brave, to do what you'll be doing, and I admire you for doing it.”
“Oh, well, you've got to say that,” said Miss Leroy. She unhooked her sturdy brassiere and held it up in front of her. “No British labels on this one. Did we check all the rest of them? Though I suppose it would be a little awkward for SOE to imply that it believes anyone will be looking closely enough at my undergarments to spot me as a spy.”
Jean said, “It's all been checked, of course. I haven't got to say anything.”
Miss Leroy's plump, freckled skin had red creases in it from where she'd been strapped into her undergarments all day. With her makeup washed off and her hair down, she looked much less like a confident girl and much more like a person Jean's own age. “Of course,” she echoed, and reached for her nightgown. “We do nothing by halves here. So, you think I'm brave --” Her head disappeared for a moment in voluminous cotton. “-- and you admire me, but you wouldn't do what I'm doing. Would that be going into France, or laughing about it? Or both?”
She waited a moment; then, when Jean did not answer right away, she went over to the light and switched it off. Jean heard her making her way back to her own bed, fumbling a little as she found it in the dark.
Jean sat silent, struggling with a sense of duty that was giving her two sets of opposite instructions. With the light off, it was easier to forget what her place was in the great machine that was the British war effort. The person in this room seemed to matter much more. “You do know the odds they give you girls,” she said, at last.
“Fifty percent chance we don't come back,” said Miss Leroy, her voice coming out of the darkness on the other side of the room. “Yes, I know.” She said it as easily as if she was talking about the price of horse meat on the black market. “It's just a made-up number, you know. They only started sending us out last month. How can anyone know what the odds really are?”
“Yes,” said Jean, “and that's what worries me.” She sat up straight in her bed, her hands fisting into the coverlet.“There's no precedent for sending women behind the lines. It's dangerous enough for the men we send over – you don't know how dangerous – and they're commissioned officers, with some protections. There's no international laws that cover you, no protections for you in the field, and no reliable way we can know what's going on with you once you're there. The truth is we haven't the faintest idea what to expect. How are we meant to prepare you for anything? And how can we take the responsibility for sending you, knowing how much we don't know?”
It was a great relief to have spoken, which made her feel belatedly certain that she shouldn't have said anything at all, but it was too late now. There was a thoughtful sort of silence in the other side of the room. Finally, Miss Leroy said, “Miss McBrien, is this some sort of test?”
Jean gave a snort. “No.”
“I didn't think so,” said Miss Leroy. “You do seem a very straightforward type. It's no wonder they're not sending you into the field. But SOE can be tricky bastards, you know, so I had to ask.”
In spite of herself, Jean felt her lips press together in irritation, and then consciously relaxed them. If Miss Leroy wanted to constantly underestimate her, it wasn't as if she had been perfectly fair to Miss Leroy either. “I wouldn't sign up to go into France in any case. And I'm not sure I could laugh about it either, if I were, but --” She let out a breath of exhalation. “-- it's really not you I'm disapproving of, so I'm sorry if it's you I've taken it out on. It's certainly not my place to say what SOE should or shouldn't be doing. If it were up to me, you girls --”
“You girls,” echoed Miss Leroy, thoughtfully. “Isn't it funny how you keep saying that? I'm quite sure we must be nearly the same age.”
“You're two years older,” Jean said dryly, before she could catch herself.
“Am I!” Miss Leroy sounded pleased by that piece of information. “You'd know from my file, of course. Well, then, you might take it from someone older that you needn't feel responsible for me, Miss McBrien. I'm going into this with my eyes open.”
“Then,” said Jean – knowing she should not ask, and unable to stop herself – “why do it?”
“Oh, that must be in my file somewhere too, mustn't it?”
“I'm not asking your file,” said Jean. “I'm asking you.”
After a pause, Miss Leroy said, “Are you sure this isn't a test?” Her voice was wry; she went on before Jean could answer. “No, I know. Why am I doing this? Because it needs to be done, I suppose, and I can do it. There's nothing to stop me from doing it. I don't want to be sitting around after the war when some veteran comes swaggering in, and be thinking to myself that I said no, when I might have said yes. And it's better by far than this awful helplessness of waiting for things to be over with.” She paused a moment, and continued, her voice light. “But I suppose I ought to have said patriotism, shouldn't I, rather than pride? If this is a test, I've failed it.”
Jean wanted to say that there were other ways to help – that a woman didn't need to throw herself headlong into terrible danger to have importance, to make a difference – but the weight of duty was pressing on her again. She'd already said more than she should. Miss Leroy might absolve her of responsibility, but she couldn't absolve herself; if the things Jean said now were to make Miss Leroy falter later when she needed strength, Jean knew she would bear the weight of it.
“It really wasn't a test,” she said, instead, “and you've not failed anything. I was the one who spoke out of turn. Get some rest, Miss Leroy. You'll need it for tomorrow.”
“You get some rest too, young lady,” said Miss Leroy.
Jean snorted again, but let her have the last word. It seemed a small enough kindness to do her.
Jean drove Miss Leroy out to the airfield at Tangmere the next evening. If Miss Leroy was thinking more of what they'd spoken of last night, she showed no signs of it. They talked of nothing but Miss Leroy's cover – what she should say if someone happened to question her about her mother, her father, her cosmetics suppliers, her faint Provençal accent.
Vera Atkins met them at Tangmere Cottage, across from the airfield. She smiled at Miss Leroy. “Welcome, Nanette. Thanks, Miss McBrien. I'll take it from here.”
This seemed to be a dismissal. Jean hesitated, and turned to Miss Leroy.
“You said you'd say goodbye to me however I liked,” said Miss Leroy, lightly.
“I did say that,” said Jean. She held out a hand. “Thank you your service, Miss Leroy, and for what you're about to do. I'll be thinking of you.”
She hoped it meant something, to know that somebody would.
Miss Leroy took Jean's hand in a firm grip of her own, and then, to Jean's surprise, pulled her in close. “However I liked,” she reminded her, and then kissed first her left cheek, then her right. “French style,” she explained cheerfully as she stepped back again. “All part of the cover. I'll look you up when the war's over, Jean McBrien.”
“I hope you will,” said Jean, with a flare of amusement mixed with irritation. Trust Miss Leroy to be ridiculous, even to the last.
She got back in the car. In the rear mirror, she saw the faint print of lipstick on her cheeks, and behind that Miss Atkins leading Miss Leroy to Tangmere Cottage for a last dinner and check before takeoff.
The amusement and irritation were both fading away, leaving behind them a pit in her stomach she didn't know how to fill. She knew what she had said was true – she would be thinking of Miss Leroy every day, whether or not she wanted to. She thought, as she drove away, that she would have to find some way to tell Miss Atkins that she was not suited to the work of serving as an escorting agent.
She did not think she was likely to see Nella Leroy again.
“Why don't we give her another opportunity? An even bigger one?”
Jean felt the sudden shift in atmosphere as all three of the others turned their attention to her, working through the implications of what she'd said. “Well,” Lucy said, after a moment, “she knows Millie already, so I suppose I could --”
“Good heavens, no,” said Jean, a little more forcefully than she meant to. “No, it's to be me, of course. Somebody she'll see as a person of authority, who'll take careful dealing with.”
Millie's surprise, thought Jean wryly, was perhaps a little unflattering. “Yes,” she said, “me, Jean.”
“You to do what?” Alice, normally so quick, was a step behind here – but then, Alice was still working from the old Bletchley methods: receive the data, then analyze it. Even in prison, her role had been reactive, a consultant on her own case.
“Jean is saying we ought to set up a meeting with Marta Magro,” Lucy answered, her eyes still on Jean. “Pretend to be someone important enough that she'll want to take a meeting with you at the hotel, where the Magros are keeping the girls. Isn't that right?”
“Exactly,” said Jean.
Alice blinked. “But wouldn't that be terribly dangerous? If you're in her – her headquarters, or whatever you want to call it, and she finds out you aren't who you say you are –”
“You'll need to look the part.” Millie looked Jean up and down assessingly, as if seeing her sober dark coat for the first time. Well, Jean never had dressed to stand out. “Clothes, cosmetics – as far as make-up and jewelry go, you can borrow mine, but I'm afraid my best coat isn't likely to fit you --”
Jean said, “Your wardrobe, fine as it is, wouldn't be appropriate to the kind of part I'll need to play anyway. Don't worry, I've someone I can ask.”
“That's all right, then. Marta will want to see –”
“If you're going in,” Lucy interrupted, “I ought to go too.” Her mouth was set firm. She looked leagues more confident than the hesitant girl who'd offered to get on a train to lure out a killer last year. That endeavor had so nearly ended in disaster, and yet there Lucy was at Scotland Yard, even deeper in the thick of it than before, and thriving on it. “I'll be your secretary or something. It will make you look more important. You need to look important, don't you? And at least there will be more of us, that way, if something goes wrong.”
Jean hesitated – but Lucy was quite right, she would look more important with a helper along. And after what had happened on the train, she hardly could tell Lucy she didn't want her going into danger. If Lucy felt capable of it, it wasn't Jean's place to stop her. “All right. But you'll have to keep your head down. ”
Alice was looking from one to the other of them like she hardly recognized them. “I didn't think this sort of thing was really in our line,” she said, with some hesitancy. “We analyze, we don't –”
“Don't have much choice,” said Jean, “when we're out of data to work with.” She folded her hands over her cane to keep her stance straight. She wouldn't show any sign of nerves now. “It isn't like it was in the war. There's nobody else to deliver information to our desks. So either we give up, or we figure out some other way of getting it on our own – but either way, if we're waging a campaign, it's our responsibility. Nobody else's.”
“It's my responsibility really,” added Millie, looking like she was on the verge of another attack of conscience. “I dragged you into all this --”
“This time,” said Jean. “I pulled you all into it last time, and it was Susan the time before that. We've all said the risks were acceptable, when the goal's important enough.” It suddenly felt very important to her to be specific and say aloud what they were trying to do, though they all knew already what the stakes were. “To save those girls, it's worth the risk.”
Walking home some hours later, Jean wondered why exactly it had been so important to her to spell out what the point of the operation was. Perhaps it was simply the novelty – still a novelty, though this was the third such campaign they had undertaken – of having such a clear, concrete goal. Winning the war had been such a broad objective, and the effort that went into it such a massive machine of interlocking parts, that the justification of any individual action had been near impossible to pin down. She'd had more information available to her in her positions than many, and still had not had the context to understand the logic behind most of the decisions handed down to her. And then, of course, a good number of the ones that she had understood, she had not trusted.
Her Bletchley girls might not have the resources now that they'd had in the war, but in their small group they did have the luxury of logic, of transparency and informed trust. There would be no inexplicable orders, no decisions that could not be questioned, and no risks without a clear reason to take them.
Though – the sound of her cane on her front stairs, and the ache in her leg reminded her – this did not make danger less dangerous. Her breath came hard, as she levered herself up the last step to her door, and reached for her keys.
“Nella!” she called out, as the door swung open. “Are you home yet?”
The door closed behind her; she shrugged out of her coat and jacket, then leaned her stick against the closest chair and sank into it, as Nella came into the sitting room. “Yes, for the last hour. You've been out late!”
“Yes, well,” said Jean, “we've been strategizing. I think I'm going to have to raid your wardrobe.”
“My wardrobe!” Nella's eyes lit up; Jean eyed her. “When was the last time I saw you wear something halfway interesting?”
“I don't plan on making a habit of it,” said Jean, sternly.
Nella laughed. “Well, come on, let's go play dress-up.”
“I'll have a bit of a sit-down first, thanks.” She generally tried not to let any of the younger girls see how stiff her leg did get, at the end of the day. She supposed that was prideful behavior, but she'd no intention of changing it. Either way, it was a great relief to come home to Nella and inconvenience her as much as she pleased.
“Oh, I suppose I can take it easy on your old bones.” Nella dropped into the chair across from her. “So what's this about? Undercover work, at last?”
“Yes,” Jean said, slowly. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
“You'll need a cover story. Or have you got one already?”
“That's what we've been so late talking over.” She sketched out the notion of the trap they were laying for the Magros: the wealthy customer, the bulk sale of cigarettes.
“This is the woman who was holding your Millie hostage?”
“And you'll be trying to fool her directly! Aren't you nervous?”
“I'd be a fool not to be,” Jean retorted, more brusquely than she'd meant, and then took a breath. It was all right to let Nella see things that the girls shouldn't; still, there were limits. “There's a great many details to be worked out, of course. Having a wardrobe will help. Between your extravagance in dress and Millie's in cosmetics, I ought to be able to make quite an impression.” She pushed herself to her feet again. “So let's take a look at what you have, shall we?”
They kept separate rooms, separate working desks and closets. Both of them liked their space. “It's lucky we're nearly the same size these days,” remarked Nella, as she knelt down to open her chest of drawers. Neither of them were sylphs, but Nella had never quite regained the weight she'd lost in the camp. “Here – you try this. It's the most expensive I have, so you'd better take care of it.”
“I expect I'll take better care of it than you do,” said Jean. She sat down on Nella's bed and held out her hands, and Nella passed over the blouse.
Jean took it, and found her hands, automatically, moving to turn it inside out. At the same time, Nella said, “It does make you feel you ought to be checking for British labels, doesn't it?”
They looked at each other. Jean said, a little ruefully, “Undercover work at last.”
“You know,” said Nella, after a moment, “I've never asked you. And you did ask me that time, so it seems only fair that I should.” She was still kneeling on the floor in front of Jean, her face turned up to her – thinner than it had been in 1942, her curly hair shorter and her eyes older.
“Asked me what?”
“These risks you're taking now – meeting with gangsters, interfering with the police – I mean, for heavens' sake, Jean, you were shot. You know I'm the last person to say you shouldn't do it.” Her mouth quirked. “If nothing else, it would be high hypocrisy.”
Jean said, “True.”
“Still,” Nella went on, “if you knew all the times over in France when things were starting to go wrong, and I thought to myself, that Jean's far too sensible to get herself into trouble like this – I did call you Jean in my head, I'm afraid; perhaps it was forward of me, but then, you know, I am older than you --”
“-- and you were too sensible, then. I'd never tell you not to do what you think you've got to do, I just want to know why. Why take these risks now?”
Jean's leg ached, as if Nella's mention of the bullet wound had reminded it to hurt. She sat with Nella's shirt in her hands, and thought about Nella at Tangmere in 1942, and Lucy getting on a train to catch a murderer in 1952, and all the years in between – years of secrets, and usefulness, and quiet, heroic work. Years of gathering data from other people's danger.
There were still some things about Bletchley she could not share with Nella, just as there were things about Nella she could not and would not share with her Bletchley girls, beloved as they were; but it wasn't only Bletchley that had brought her to this point and this person that she was today. She said, “You know, part of it is that you came back.”
Nella, caught off-guard, blinked up at Jean.
“I really didn't think you ever would,” said Jean. “So many didn't. Those of us who were looking at the data – we did know things were going wrong out there, long before the top brass wanted to believe it. I couldn't think it was worth it, to take such risks. You'd have been right to blame us for everything that happened.” Nella was shaking her head; Jean took a breath, then went on. “But you did come back, after everything. You looked me up, after everything! And I kept waiting for you to say that you wished you hadn't gone at all, and you never did.”
“I wished it plenty of times,” Nella admitted. “You don't know how many times. All the times I was thinking how much cleverer you were than I was. But now – no, you're right. I wouldn't do all the same things again, but I'd do most of them.”
“There it is,” said Jean. “There's things that have got to be done. If you see that they've got to be done, you can't stand by and not do them. I've always understood that, but I suppose I've gotten more reckless about it.” She put Nella's blouse in her lap, and pursed her lips together. “In other words, you've been an extremely bad influence on me.”
Nella blinked again, and then laughed. “Well, that was never in question.” She sat up on her heels, then rose and came to sit next to Jean on the bed. “You'd better try it on, hadn't you? These gangsters of yours will certainly know something's off if your clothes don't fit right.” As Jean started to unbutton her shirt, Nella added, “And while we're following protocol, hadn't I better check your bra for any giveaway labels, too?”
Jean frowned at Nella. “If Marta Magro is going to be looking at my brassiere --”
“Marta Magro had certainly better not be looking at your brassiere,” said Nella.
“Well, exactly,” said Jean, repressively.
Nella was not repressed. “Still, take it from an experienced agent, Miss McBrien – if you're going undercover, you've got to take it seriously. No half measures.” She pulled Jean's shirt off her shoulders and reached for the clasp on her bra, while Jean struggled to keep her mouth straight against a smile. “Seriously!” Nella admonished her, drawing her eyebrows down furiously in a parody of Jean's own stern face.
Jean gave up, and leaned backwards against Nella, and laughed aloud.