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Authors: Catherine Aird

Last Writes

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Last Writes

A Collection of Short Stories

C
ATHERINE
A
IRD

For Eilidh Macmillan Watkin with love

‘That you, Wendy? It’s Henry here. Look here, old girl, can I possibly come down to stay with you in Berebury for a few days?’

‘Of course you can, dear,’ said his sister, Wendy Witherington, without hesitation. ‘The children will be delighted to see you and I know that Tim will enjoy hearing how things are these days in London.’

‘Dire,’ groaned her brother, who worked at the Foreign Office. ‘Absolutely dire.’

‘Then a few days in the country will be very good for you,’ pronounced Wendy briskly. ‘A complete break is what you need.’

‘A complete break isn’t what I shall be getting,’ said Henry Tyler wryly. ‘I’m afraid I shall have to bring some work down with me. No choice, worse luck.’

‘Then don’t expect to do it until the children have gone to bed,’ said his sister practically. ‘They’ll never forgive you
if you don’t spend some time with them.’

‘All I can say, Wen, is that their company will be a great improvement on that of some of the people with whom I’ve had to spend my time with lately.’ The upper echelons of the Foreign Office had no time these days for leisurely luncheons or even routine meetings. And hadn’t had ever since Germany had seized the Rhineland.

‘You do need a rest, don’t you?’ Wendy was his elder sister and thus felt able to comment freely. ‘Come down whenever you like.’

‘I’ll come down whenever I can,’ amended her brother in whom the pedantry of the Civil Service was deeply ingrained, even though civilised conversations with most of the ambassadors accredited to the Court of St James were now a thing of the past. ‘But I warn you now, I’ll have some work to do while I’m with you.’

‘Dispatches from foreign parts?’ said Wendy, who knew the term well enough but not what was really at stake in such diplomatic communications in the late 1930s – a notably tense time in European history.

‘You could call them that,’ agreed Henry, adding under his breath that it would be a great help if he could actually read and understand all of them. A capacity to read between the lines went without saying in the Foreign Office but being a linguist was no help with those communications that involved code-breaking.

‘Not Herr Hitler being difficult again?’ asked Wendy, whose understanding of the European political scene was decidedly sketchy.

‘I’m afraid so.’ For one glorious moment Henry envisaged a world in which a young Adolf Hitler had been
brought up by his sister, Wendy, and taught his Ps and Qs as firmly as his nephew and niece had been. Considerably sustained by this happy – but alas – imaginary vision he went on ‘And my minister won’t forgive me if I come back to the office without our current conundrum having been solved.’

As he packed his weekend case and tossed his homework into it that Thursday evening, Henry had second thoughts about having used the word ‘conundrum’. ‘Puzzle’ might describe the copy of the typed sheet he was taking with him to Berebury better. Or even ‘riddle’. That it, whatever it was called, was very important indeed there was no doubt whatsoever.

True, that piece of paper in his case did technically fall under the heading of ‘Dispatches’ and was so described at the Foreign Office but it had not arrived in any diplomatic bag. The fact that the usual channels had not been used was only one of the things that underlined its importance.

Instead the message had reached London from continental Europe by a route so devious as to be unrecorded but known to involve a French abbé, a chorus girl coming home from a rather risqué engagement that had not met with the approval of the Third Reich and a somewhat hazardous exchange between anonymous patriots on fishing boats at sea.

The chorus girl had been already so scantily clad as to be considered not to merit further searching – as it happened a great mistake on the part of the authorities. And the soutane of the abbé had been similarly helpful in discouraging overenthusiastic rubbings-down. The fishermen smelt of
fish and the sea and anyway no one knew that the message had reached them.

And now Henry had this precious piece of paper in his hands and could not read it.

Neither could the code-breakers at the Foreign Office, or even those at British Naval Intelligence’s celebrated old Room 40 of the Great War. That their departments were about to be considerably beefed up was no immediate help to Henry. It was no consolation either that various other assorted patriots had probably also risked life and limb to get the piece of paper to him. All that meant was that the message was important. It wasn’t something that he had ever doubted but it greatly added to his feeling of responsibility.

His sister, Wendy, duly met him at Berebury station and bore him off to a strenuous playtime with his nephew and niece. This was followed, after their bedtime, by a leisurely supper with his sister and her husband, Tim.

‘Things not too good in London, eh?’ surmised Tim Witherington, pouring Henry a generous nightcap.

‘Not good at all,’ admitted Henry. ‘Damned tricky, in fact.’

‘Not surprised,’ said his brother-in-law, whose limp dated from the March Retreat of 1918. ‘Even though you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.’

‘Of course, things are a bit different these days …’ Speaking in generalities was taught at the same time as speaking in tongues at the Foreign Office.

Tim Witherington started to knock out his pipe on the hearth, caught his wife’s eye and used an ashtray instead. ‘I can see that. More undercover, I daresay.’

‘More political, anyway,’ said Henry vaguely. There were those in France – and some said in England, too – who held what his minister called ‘doubtful views’. But who they all were in both countries was not always immediately clear – which was a big headache just now.

Wendy tactfully put an end to their conversation by putting her knitting down and getting out of her chair. ‘You’ll be wanting an early night, I’m sure, Henry. I’ve told the children to be extra careful not to wake you in the morning …’

It was an unnecessary warning. Henry had very little sleep anyway, having spent the night tossing and turning between bouts of staring at the scrap of paper and its short typewritten message. Bleary eyed, he stared at it once again in the morning and still made no sense of it.

NP AY YT FR BY LH WM RL BP QM LD SS UD TO AS RT LO RP ER BY UT WJ YO AD WA IY AR XY UP BS RT UD J

Henry Tyler didn’t come downstairs that morning until after the children were safely at school and Tim Witherington well on his way to his office in the little market town.

‘Coffee,’ ordained Wendy, taking one look at his face. ‘And toast.’

Wearily, Henry pulled a chair up to the table. ‘Thanks, Wen. Has the newspaper come yet?’

She handed it to him and waited while he scanned the headlines. ‘Nothing new,’ he said, laying it down beside his plate.

‘Is that good or bad?’ she asked.

‘You can’t really tell these days,’ he sighed. ‘That’s the trouble.’ He couldn’t remember when he’d last felt quite as tired as he did now.

‘No,’ she said. ‘I can understand that but you’re really worried this time, aren’t you?’

‘All I’ve got to do this weekend,’ he responded lightly, ‘is break a code.’

‘That’s all right, then,’ she said calmly. ‘It shouldn’t be too difficult. The children won’t be home from school until quarter past four.’

He laughed aloud for the first time in weeks. ‘That’s what you think, old girl.’

‘You mean you can’t do it?’

‘I do indeed mean just that.’ He was quite serious now. ‘I’ve been working on it for quite a while already. And I’m not the only one to have had a go.’

‘Can you actually read it? I mean, it’s not in numbers like that funny thing from Russia, is it?’

‘The Zimmermann Telegram and its threat of “unrestricted submarine warfare”?’ divined Henry without difficulty. ‘No. That was a series of numbers and numbers and it usually means you need a code book before you can decipher anything.’

‘Wasn’t that a fake, anyway?’

‘It was political,’ said Henry with feeling.

Wendy frowned. ‘So how do you know that what you’ve got isn’t, too?’

‘I don’t,’ said Henry. ‘It’s quite possible that it isn’t a genuine message, which, were we then to act upon it, it would mean that we would all be deep in the mulligatawny.’ He paused. ‘And people might die.’

‘And it’s not in hieroglyphics or anything like that, is it?’ said Wendy, ignoring this convolution.

‘Nor in Cyrillic,’ said Henry.

‘What the children say to that is “Nice work, Cyril”,’ said their mother.

‘Oh, I can read it all right,’ said Henry, smiling at last. ‘That’s not the problem. It’s typed.’

‘Why?’

‘Why what?’

‘Why was your message typed? I mean, if it was urgent and private you’d think it would be handwritten. Typewriters make a fearful clatter. You can’t really be private about it.’ Before being swept off her feet by a young and handsome Tim Witherington, his sister had worked as a secretary in the offices of Puckle, Puckle and Nunnery, solicitors of Berebury, and thus knew about such things.

‘I’d never thought of that,’ he confessed. ‘I suppose it could actually have been written in an office if no one was watching what you were up to.’

Wendy knitted her eyebrows. ‘Do you know who it’s from? I mean, has it been written by one of those honest men sent to lie abroad for the good of their country?’

‘An ambassador?’ said Henry. Sir Henry Wotton’s definition of an ambassador as such was famous. ‘I doubt it. More likely, I’m afraid,’ he added gloomily, ‘it’s been written by a good man sent to die abroad for the good of this country – or even perhaps his country, which might not be the same thing.’

‘Current affairs aren’t very good just now, are they?’ she said quietly.

‘No.’ Henry shook his head. ‘Especially in France.’


La belle France
,’ said his sister, who’d honeymooned in Paris.

‘The country is all right,’ growled Henry. ‘It’s the politicians who aren’t. You just don’t know where you are with them.’ Absently, he helped himself to some more coffee while he considered the likely consequences of showing the message to his sister and thus breaking the Official Secrets Act. If he did and anyone found out that he had done he’d probably be sent to the Tower – or worse still, lose his pension.

‘Politicians never are all right,’ said Wendy Witherington, thus summing up world history in a nutshell.

‘Look here, Wen,’ he said impulsively, ‘you were the confidential secretary to old Mr Nunnery, weren’t you?’

‘I was. For years. He was ever so upset when I got married …’

‘I didn’t mean that. I mean that you were used to handling very private matters in his office.’

‘Naturally,’ she said, bridling a little. ‘Do you mean did I ever tell anyone anything I shouldn’t? Because if so …’

‘No, no,’ he interrupted her hastily.

She gave a reminiscent smile. ‘You wouldn’t believe the number of people who tried to pump me about what was in old Mrs Wilkins’ will. All three nephews and that young girl she was so fond of.’

‘I do believe you, old thing. Where’s there’s a will, there’s a relative.’

‘And in the end when she died it all went to someone else.’

‘Served ’em right,’ said Henry.

‘This message,’ she said, deflecting him. ‘I thought that since
e
is the commonest letter, that you had to look for that first.’

‘You do if it’s in English,’ said Henry, who had been through this before in London.

‘Will it be in English?’ she asked.

‘It should be,’ he said carefully, ‘because I am hoping that it’s from an Englishman.’

‘Were you expecting it?’ asked Wendy Witherington intelligently.

‘Yes and no,’ he replied slowly. ‘You see, we have a number of our people established in strange places.’

‘What you call sleepers?’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Don’t be silly, Henry. Everyone knows that.’

‘And that’s only all right if no one knows who they are …’

‘And only if they are all right,’ she said again.

‘That’s part of the trouble,’ he admitted. ‘If they aren’t all right, then we’re all in trouble.’

‘Especially,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘if you don’t know if they’ve been turned.’

‘Who have you been talking to?’

‘Me? No one, but I do read, you know.’

‘There’s something else,’ he said. ‘If they have been turned, we need to know exactly when.’

‘I can see that. So you have tried looking for the commonest letter in other languages, too?’

‘The one that’s most likely to be their equivalent of
e
, you mean? Yes, that’s all been done.’

‘And?’

‘There wasn’t any letter that stood out as being used much more than any other.’

‘That’s quite odd.’

‘That’s what they said in the office, too.’ Henry reached for the toast rack. ‘Apparently it’s the first thing the code-breakers look for.’

‘What about every fourth letter or something like that?’ she asked, automatically passing him the butter dish.

‘We’ve all done every second, third and fifth letter as well until we’re squiffy-eyed,’ said Henry, ‘and we still can’t make any sense of it.’

‘And put them in groups? Don’t they do that, too?’

‘They do,’ said Henry wearily, ‘and no, that didn’t work.’

‘What’s the next most popular letter in English after
e
?’ she asked.

‘Probably
a
,’ said Henry. ‘And, no, that doesn’t work either.’

‘Marmalade, dear? It’s home-made.’

‘I’d better enjoy it while I can,’ said Henry gloomily, helping himself to a good spoonful. ‘I doubt if you’ll be getting any Seville oranges next year. And not only because of the rain in Spain falling mainly on the plain.’

‘Poor Spain,’ said Wendy. ‘The news isn’t good from there either, is it?’

‘The news from nowhere is good,’ said Henry, consciously parodying Samuel Butler. ‘And Spain has its troubles, too.’ That they tended to compound those of the United Kingdom he left unsaid.

But his sister wasn’t listening. Instead a little smile was playing round her lips. ‘You won’t remember Mr Benomley,
will you? He was the Chief Clerk at Puckle, Puckle and Nunnery …’

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