I remember the war years like they were yesterday. In the parlance of the time, I ‘had a good war.’ Aside from missing my husband and rationing, life was fairly easy. I had essential work, very comfortable accommodation and lots of friends.
After graduation from the School of Nursing, I was assigned permanent late shift at St Margaret’s. I’d knock off and cycle home just after 10pm in strict blackout conditions. Home was the luxurious, albeit faded, flat Colin’s grandmother had left us as a wedding present.
Knowing the lay-out of the flat like the back of my hand, I never bothered with blackout curtains and lights after my return from work. I’d prepare a pot of tea in the dark and take the tea tray to the coffee table under the picture window. Seated in grandmother’s chintz settee in the dark, I’d have my tea and admire the moon, stars and their reflections on the sea. This was the best part of the flat. The window overlooked a narrow victory garden, then a fence followed by an expanse of rocky headland and the sea.
Ever since Colin was posted to Malta for eight months, thence to North Africa as a newly-minted Lieutenant in the Armoured Corps, I had to create my own life. He wouldn’t get home until after the war, unless he got invalided out. My after-work routine was: tea, twinkling lights, the BBC News on softly in the bedroom, a prayer for Colin’s safety and sleep.
The block had just two flats on each of four floors. Aside from the two men immediately above me, the rest of us were women making our own war effort, and waiting for our men to come home. We were all very considerate of shift workers. Aside from several squeaky floorboards, the flat was blissfully quiet.
The two men seemed to enjoy the twinkling lights, too. I’d hear the floorboards squeak immediately above me as I sipped my tea.
One morning, shortly after the two men had moved in, I went out clutching my handbag containing my ration book, string bag and a small purse. I met my neighbour, Cynthia, at the letter boxes in the entry as she headed for work. ‘Have you met those two men?’ she asked,
as we fell into step together.
‘Just to nod at.’
‘They have strange accents. Suffolk, I think. The shorter one has creepy eyes.’
I laughed at the melodrama. ‘What do they do for work?’
‘They said they work for the government. Something they can’t talk about.’
‘That’s already saying too much. Loose lips!’
‘I know. They should’ve said they were bookkeepers.’ I laughed and veered off into the greengrocers.
After work, as usual, I had tea in the dark and admired the starry view out the window.
There seemed to be a slight change in the reflections, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The floorboards above my head squeaked disconcertingly. I wondered if the two men had noticed something different about the reflections.
Over the next couple of nights, squeaks indicated that the two men were keeping watch.
That struck me as a strange pursuit for two men.
A few nights later, it was slightly overcast. I was disappointed by the subdued reflections. Then I noticed it. One persistent reflection. It twinkled in a pattern. The floor boards squeaked.
My heart racing, I made my way silently to the door in the dark. The Constabulary was just down the street. I insisted on speaking with a senior officer on a very serious matter. The constable on the front desk noted the determination and borderline panic in my voice and sent me to see a detective. The detective listened closely to my tale and knitted his brows with concern.
He made a call. ‘Time to act, Sir. I have a witness to those two… Yes, the witness is right here. A very sensible lady.’ He passed me the phone. I was thanked warmly for my information.
‘For your own safety, you must not tell anyone about what you’ve seen.’ I nodded emphatically. ‘I’ll have you stay in an interview room for a few hours with a WPC while we arrest those two. If anyone’s watching, I don’t want them to suspect you’re implicated in the arrest.’
‘I won’t say a word, but what was it that I just saw?’
‘Encoded signals sent from a sub using a very narrow beam. It’s a miracle that you could see it one floor below. MI6 believed those two were foreign spies who have been under surveillance. We’ll arrest them now and see what the Royal Navy can do about the sub.’
I was met in the corridor by a WPC who smiled and asked, ‘How about tea and a biscuit?’
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