“How guilt refined the methods of self-torture,
threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop,
a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime.”
- Ian McEwan, Atonement.
Hampstead Village, London, 2009
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
She lies awake most nights, preferring the armchair by the window with a blanket around her shoulders and look at the view, rather than remain in a cold half empty bed. Her only light comes from the lamp on her writing desk. On the rare nights she does sleep without interruption, she sticks firmly to her side of the bed – the left – in spite of, or perhaps because of, James’ passing. The loss is still acute; the edges of the pain have yet to dull. She’s well thought of in the community, loved and supported by her family, but still, she feels it: the burden of loneliness. The wedding band James slid on to her finger over fifty years ago on a warm day in June slips off all-too easily these days. She wears it on a chain around her neck instead for safekeeping. Their marriage would probably be defined as one of convenience now, but that cheapens things. What she felt for James was no less genuine.
They had a good life together, on the whole, for which she’s grateful. Their children, Richard and Charlotte, were brought up in a happy home, and wanted for little thanks to James’ position as a civil servant and hers as a secretary. Though not the job she imagined for herself, she grew to enjoy it. After the children were born, she remained at home, taking in accounting work at James’ insistence, just to keep her mind active. She intended to return, at some point, missing the bustle and chatter of the typing pool, but she never managed it. Her children became her life instead, and she’s not sorry. They’ve long since flown the coop, and have lives of their own. There are grandchildren; Matthew and Greg from Richard, and little Lucy from Charlotte. Lucy’s not so little these days, of course, with a tiny daughter of her own, Molly, that James never got to see.
Alzheimer’s stole that kind, brilliant man from her with terrifying speed, leaving a shell that looked awfully like him in his place. There were sparks of lucidity, when he would remember her, and times they’d shared quite vividly – like their very first meeting on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in 1949, when he shielded her under his umbrella. The bus they were both waiting for never came, and he walked her all the way home. Then, there were other times, where the fog of that cruel disease had descended fully, and he didn’t know her at all. She was just another face in the residents lounge at the care home.
Until five years ago, he was her companion, her constant. Though not a man many words, he was a man of great kindness and understanding. She needed both when they found each other. A former Royal Artillery man, he carried a shrapnel injury that meant he walked with a cane, though it plagued him in some form or another every day they were together, he rarely complained. The cane sits next to her bed now. Whenever she feels unsteady – which is often these days – she uses it for herself, and it’s like he’s there instead, arm linked through hers, supporting her, instead of that well-worn wooden cane.
James wasn’t the first person she loved with all her heart, but he’s the last. He shared her, always, with another he only knew of by name – Naomi Campbell – and the single picture she’s only had the courage to show him once. Until his death, he believed that she had been a part of the Women’s Royal Naval Service as a telegraphist, posted at Pembroke V. There, she met a girl, who she loved very dearly. He didn’t question it. He didn’t resent her, but more importantly, he didn’t tell another soul. What she shared wasn’t a lie, exactly, just an elaboration of the truth she was allowed to tell him. She did work with Wrens, but instead of sending messages, she deciphered them, as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park. Over the years, as the details of the work undertaken at Bletchley during the war became public, she toyed with sharing more details, but like so many, she still felt bound by The Official Secrets Act she’d signed decades before. Careless ‘Talk Costs Lives’ they used to say. It’s a hard habit to break. Upon reflection, she thinks it’s best that’s all he ever knew.
She looks at the picture of her often. It’s the only one she managed to keep. It’s tattered now, despite her attempts to keep it in good condition. In one way or another, it’s travelled everywhere with her right from the day it was developed, whether she could hold it in her hands or not.
Everything else from those years – every photograph, letter, postcard and trinket – has been stored in a small wooden chest, collected in bundles and tied with ribbon to keep them in order. It remained locked, out of sight for many years, on the highest shelf of the wardrobe; for fear of opening up wounds still fresh, but lately, it’s been easier, with the glow of nostalgia to cushion the blow. She takes it out now, from its newer, closer position in the drawer of her writing desk. The lock takes longer to open than it used to.
Slowly, she lifts out each item, inspecting it for changes, as if time will have altered things; reading glasses perched on her nose, as she has done every other time the box has been opened. She’s always drawn to the pictures first. There are a fair few, some taken at Bletchley, some later, after the war. She smiles to herself, touching a fingertip to the faces of the women she once knew so well: Elizabeth Stonem, Anna Davies, Polly Jones, and of course, Naomi. Then, she sees it; one of her, Anna, and Polly, outside Hut 3, taken during their first few days at Bletchley. Smiling to herself, she tilts it closer to the lamp, still marvelling at the young version of herself. This one, like so many of them, was taken by Naomi, possessing something of a natural talent for it. Sadly, it’s in poorer condition than the others, and she’s had to fix it several times to avoid losing it altogether. It’s for one reason, and one reason only, for the note that Naomi wrote all the way across it, as she did every other from that day, given as a parting gift once they left Bletchley for the final time:
Never be ordinary.
That was Naomi’s mantra, determined they should make something of themselves once the war was over. She can still hear her now, saying that very thing, cigarette in hand, gesticulating wildly as she spoke. Such bright young things they were, so driven, so full of promise, on the edge of everything. She always thinks of them this way, no matter if the pictures from obituaries and orders of service show her otherwise. She’s the last of them now, the baby of the bunch, the others were just into their twenties, while she was yet to leave her teens.
It’s funny how the mind plays tricks. How it can bend time as if elastic. Some days, sixty years can feel as brief as sixty seconds, and on others, the opposite is true. They say you can’t be in two places at once. They’re wrong. It’s been that way for as long as she can remember. There are markers in life, you see; moments we can always recall, no matter the time of day. Some are enough to cause twists in the fabric of our memory: family holidays, longed for birthday and Christmas presents. Others are less kind, less tinted by the hue of nostalgia, and leave behind great ridges, fissures in that fabric that tear so deeply they’re never fully repaired no matter how tight and neat the stitches that try might look.
Naomi her dear, dear Naomi, and her time at Bletchley is one of those tears, perhaps the one that runs the deepest; that cuts closest to the bone. There’s a space in her heart that Naomi used to occupy. It’s never been filled.
She’ll always remember their first meeting. It was 1943, early February, bitterly cold, overcast and threatening rain the entire journey.
Barely two months had passed since Christmas, when she’d left the Surrey, the Land Army, and her twin sister Kate behind. She missed her dreadfully. Always an ailing child, she was left weakened by it, deemed too ill to carry on. Academics had been her thing, but she had no idea that her natural aptitude for mathematics and logic puzzles meant that she could contribute to the war effort, just a little differently to how she originally imagined. Before she knew it, she’d been recruited, trained, and found herself on the way to Bletchley, with no idea what would happen once she got there.
Stood there, with a small brown suitcase in her hand, waiting to be picked up, scrutinising the face of every person who passed by, she felt utterly lost and all together too young. It took her a few moments to realise, but there, in amongst the throng of people, was a girl – woman – immaculately dressed, with azure blue eyes, perfect platinum pincurls and scarlet lipstick; like something from a Hollywood film. She’d never seen anyone so beautiful in all her life. She’d never considered another woman beautiful in all her life.
From the moment their eyes met, she was never quite the same.
“Are you Emily Fitch?” the woman said, in a perfect cut-glass accent.
She nodded, because she didn’t dare speak, nothing but a shy Bristol girl, with not the faintest trace of this woman’s grace.
“Awfully sorry I’m so late! I bet you thought we’d left you stranded!” the woman continued, light, bubbly and confident. She was taken back when the woman held out a hand for her to shake. “Naomi Campbell, delighted to meet you.”
Her worry was needless. The other girls in her Hut were good fun, all selected for particular talents, but day after day of working so closely together, the girls she was placed either side of soon became her dearest friends. Though she wasn’t as fiery as Anna; as witty and observant as Elizabeth (or Lizzie as they came to call her); as mischievous as Polly (who reminded her so of Kate); or as worldly-wise as Naomi. There was only four years difference between their ages, but sometimes it felt twice that, and more. They complimented each other, shoring each other up through long days, brightening each other when they were homesick or lonely; there for every moment – birthdays, Christmas and all the dates in between.
The separation from her family was hard, harder than she expected, and without those girls, she doesn’t know if she would have made it at all. They became her family in the absence of her own, all dispersed since the outbreak of war. Her father was at the front, her mother was still working at the munitions factory in Whitehall, and her little brother James evacuated to Cornwall before the end of 1940.
They would’ve been proud, had they known the truth.
She enjoyed the challenge; the feeling that she was doing something important, that she was important for the first time in her life. People depended on their ability to decode and translate, learning triplets of code to decipher the transmitted letters within the message at speed. She can still remember them. She can still remember the hours of work they put in, on the bombe or the watch, hunched over her desk with the pale light from a small lamp.
At the end of the day, they all they scattered to their different lodgings, sometimes meeting, sometimes not. Otherwise, it was just her and Naomi, travelling on the shift bus to Woburn with the other Wrens. They stayed with a woman called Mrs Ledbury. All her other rooms were full, so they took the last; sharing it together. It was small, but comfortable. Mrs Ledbury never knew, of course, about where they were stationed, but between them, she and Naomi concocted a tale about where they went every day, borrowed from stories they overheard when travelling on the bus. A tough but ultimately kind woman, Mrs Ledbury became a mother to them in the absence of their own, filling the gap and when letters home and phone calls weren’t enough. They in turn, supported her through the worst of things, answering the door and the telephone whenever they rang, because she would freeze, fearing the worst for her husband and sons. The news came, with telegrams for proof, just as she always told them.
Whenever she felt like casting aside the communication she was working on, frustrated after making no headway, Mrs Ledbury’s face as she learned that tragic news would come into her mind, driving her forward; determined to make sure that their deaths wouldn’t be in vain. It seems idealistic now, given all that they endured, but she believed it at the time. She had to believe in something.
Her boldest memories from those days are always of Naomi: in the Hut, leant over her work, brows furrowed in concentration; talking animatedly at Mrs Ledbury’s kitchen table; pensive as she stood at their bedroom window in the early light of the day, watching the street below. All manner of tiny moments are stored away in her mind, never to be forgotten. She was always drawn to her platinum hair and scarlet lips, pursed around the filter of a cigarette, the smoke curling up to the ceiling, quietly seductive. Sometimes, she’d get caught looking, but all Naomi would do is smile or wink to make her blush. It happened so often, she stopped calling her Emily, and gave her a new nickname, ‘Little Red,’ for her hair and her blushes. All the girls seemed convinced she was torn from the pages of a fairytale.
Their time off was incredibly rare, but they made the most of it, heading out dancing or taking trips to the cinema. They all seemed so worldly wise compared to her; curling their eyelashes, walking in heels with confidence and elegance, drawing lines on the backs of their legs to fake the nylons no one was able to get hold of. She took it all in, watching mostly from the sidelines until Naomi would coax her to join in.
“Come and play, Little Red,” she would say, sing-song, beckoning her with the crook of her finger, and a mischievous smile.
Some nights, the other girls would come to Woburn too, and they’d all squeeze into the room, talking away until late into the night. Things would inevitably turn towards romance, boys, and who they had their hearts set on. She’d listen intently as they’d talk of feeling like their stomach swarmed with butterflies and their hearts felt as light as air whenever they would look at them. Slowly, it dawned on her that she felt the very same things for Naomi. They’d press her, tease a little, but she’d never tell them who she truly cared for, no matter how hard they tried. Instead, she told them Kate’s stories, pretending they were her own. All the while, she’d sit next to Naomi, wishing it was her.
The lightness she once around Naomi felt soon grew heavy. She wished it away as admiration and nothing more. No matter how hard she wished, the feeling never left her. Now, she realises, with the benefit of hindsight, that perhaps Naomi had always felt as she did, but was just waiting for her to catch up. They were inevitable.
The kiss, when it happened, was unexpected. Late in September, all the other girls had gone out dancing, Lizzie and Polly’s fiancés Jack and Stephen on leave, Anna being escorted by one of the boys in their Hut, William. Naomi stayed behind to keep her company after she’d said she was too tired to join them. A poor excuse, but Naomi went along with it anyway. Given that they spent all their time together in one form or another, the actual time they’d get to themselves was relatively little. There was always something to be doing or someone to talk to, dividing their attention.
Naomi had insisted she should make her over, like she used to do for her customers when she worked as a shopgirl in a ladies boutique in Kensington, just to see how she might look. Sitting in front of the mirror, she watched her face transform; eyes and lips defined, hair curled loosely.
“Someone as lovely as you, never having a sweetheart,” Naomi said, gazing at her almost sadly as she knelt next to her, letting go of a freshly curled tress. “I can’t understand it. You’re such a pretty little thing.”
“Am I?” she asked, quickly glancing in her direction, self-conscious.
“Yes,” Naomi assured her, smiling softly.
Her response was, naturally, to blush and look at her hands, nervously playing with them until the tension in the room dissipated. She had attention from boys at school, but she was too shy, and they too easily bored, never progressing beyond chaste kisses and handholding. None of them had ever made her feel like Naomi did. Like she was special, and precious. As if she were the only person in the room. Then, quite suddenly, Naomi leaned up, pressing a quick kiss to the corner of her mouth. She tilted her head just slightly, and then Naomi kissed her again, reverent, a hand pressed to her cheek as if she might break.
She did, in a way. In shock, overwhelmed, and utterly confused, she leapt up from the chair and ran, not turning back even when Naomi called after her. It wasn’t the same as the kiss with Billy Jenkins or Tommy Miller. She felt something. She really felt something. Now she understood the beauty behind the crooning love songs on the radio; the depth of feeling behind the prose she liked to read. It was why the other girls looked as they did – dreamy and lost – whenever they spoke of their sweethearts.
The good Catholic girl in her surged up, imagining her mother’s face when she saw her new life and her new ways. She ended up in confession that night, tears streaming down her face. Not for the shame of it; but for reason she wanted to be kissed like that again, and again, and again. She wanted to be Naomi’s sweetheart, and only Naomi’s.
It was just another secret for her to keep.
For a time, it was awkward. Weeks turned into months. Another Christmas came and went. She didn’t know what to say, what to do or how to feel. They tried to talk, of course, stumbling over starts of sentences in the middle of the night when the tension between them got too much to bear, and the small strip of space in the bed between Naomi’s body and her own felt centimetres wide and cavernous all at once.
She tried to concentrate on her work, to push ahead with the ever-growing stream of decrypts.
It never worked, so the kiss, and everything they may or may not have felt hung in the air; growing heavier and heavier, permeating everything. An invisible wall had thrown itself up between them overnight. They greeted each other each day out of politeness, walked and sat on the bus together out of habit, and played along with anything else they might have to contend with for the sake of appearances.
The other girls began to notice, pulling them aside and asking why they’d fallen out. She couldn’t possibly say, of course – she didn’t dare say. In the end, even Mrs Ledbury commented upon it, concerned by the distance between them, and the silent meals they shared. Once Mrs Ledbury suggested one evening that their falling out might’ve been due to a boy, they both seemed to leap on it as the perfect excuse, but she took to it more zealously than Naomi did. After that, the pain she could see in Naomi’s eyes looked that bit sharper.
It was spite, she thinks, jealousy she knows, that drove Naomi to finally give in to the advances of one of the other watch boys, Oliver. There had been something between them – a flirtation or perhaps just pure sport – ever since she arrived at Bletchley. Every time he took Naomi dancing, to the cinema or on rare occasions, to dinner, it was like a slap in the face. It was what she wanted to do, what she so desperately longed to do, and the fact Oliver did it so easily just made her feel worse. If only she was braver, Naomi’s face would say, every single time they left.
Until one night, she believed that Oliver might be the one to become Naomi’s sweetheart, perhaps even marry her, as the other girls had begun to speculate. Their eyes would light up with excitement at the prospect, and all she wanted to do was extinguish it by telling them the truth. Just like every other time, she lay awake, waiting for Naomi to come back, listening to the clock tick by. Just like every other time, when Naomi did come back, she was drunk, bumping into everything she touched as she threw off her jacket and shoes. She shushed herself dramatically before collapsing across the bed in a fit of laughter.
“Little Red!” Naomi cooed, all too loudly, crawling up to lie next to her. She moved away instinctively, turning her back. “Don’t be like that, darling!” she continued, gripping her by the shoulders to try and turn her.
“Don’t,” she warned, feeling anger and frustration rise. She wanted her. Oh how she wanted her.
It took all of her strength to ignore Naomi’s breath, hot on her neck and the heavy tension in the room. It had always been there, buzzing underneath everything, but now it felt that bit more dangerous. She squeezed her eyes closed and she feeling Naomi’s hands slide down lower, under the bed clothes and resting on her hip, the warmth of seeping through the material of her nightgown.
She had imagined the next few moments so many times, that it took her far too long to realise she wasn’t actually dreaming then too. She did turn, angling her head tilting up as Naomi’s tilted down and they kissed again. It was different than that first time, weeks before. In between the warmth and the whiskey was something else: desperation. The want she’d always felt, stirring in the pit of her stomach every time she looked at Naomi, was coming back to her tenfold in the heat of a kiss.
At any moment, she expected it to stop, for Naomi to somehow come to her senses, but nothing like that happened. Only more kisses, drifting down her neck and nipping across her collarbone; and hands, soft, careful hands, smoothing and caressing under her nightgown, pulling it away. It felt easy, and right as she started to unbutton Naomi’s dress and lift off her slip. It felt righter still when Naomi’s naked body rested flush against hers. Then, her nervousness kicked back in, because she had no idea what to do or what to say, or even if she could say anything at all. Naomi took her hands, letting her touch the soft skin she’d only dreamed of.
“You want this, Little Red?” Naomi said, looking her deep in the eyes, carefully stroking her cheek as she clung on to her for dear life.
All she did was nod, heart pounding with terrifying speed in her chest. She daren’t speak, for fear that if she did anything at all, the spell of the evening would be broken. The rest of the night passed in a blur; a blur she can remember in the smallest detail. Every kiss. Every stroke of Naomi’s fingertips, every shuddering breath they both took; faces pressed into the pillow to muffle the sound.
She always though that making love with Naomi would be the best of things; the highest height she could ever reach – closer to the sun than Icarus – but it wasn’t. The best thing was waking up in her arms the next morning, rain battering down on the windows knowing almost immediately it wouldn’t just be that one perfect, beautiful night between them. It couldn’t be. She saw too much when she looked into Naomi’s eyes for them to fritter this away. Despite the myriad of questions in her head, they all had the same answer: Naomi. They didn’t speak, they didn’t need to. Naomi pressed a light kiss to her cheek, and lit a cigarette that they shared as they held each other. All the awkwardness was gone and all she could see herself doing was living like this.
There were new comments from the girls and Mrs Ledbury now. Comments about how nice it was to see them friends again. They were inseparable once more. It was fun at first, to let them think they were only close friends. Altogether this time for drinks, dancing and trips to the cinema. The other girls pleased that Little Red had been persuaded to join in at last. They could get away with so much; holding hands, sneaking pecks of kisses disguised as hello or goodbye and much less friendly ones backed into the corner of the filing room, lipstick smeared and buttons popped to prove it. She used to despise the nights, forcing herself the furthest she could get from Naomi without raising suspicion for fear of touching her or saying something in her sleep that would reveal the content of her dreams, but now, she longed for that tiny bedroom. She longed for Naomi’s lips on hers, faster hands, working way until she was breathless but sated. It was exciting. It was dangerous and she couldn’t get enough of it.
Oliver remained, little more than a puppet – if he was anything else at all – and she didn’t mind, because they had become friends more than anything. He escorted Naomi when she couldn’t, and all her worries would fade the second Naomi returned, and proved in no uncertain terms that her heart only belonged to one person: Little Red.
Of all the things that happened in those blissful months as April shifted into May and their work hit high gear, a memory sticks in her mind, as clear as the very day it unfolded. One Saturday, smack dab in the middle of May, the temperature beginning to pick up along with everyone’s spirits, they started to plan. To plan for a life beyond Bletchley. Naomi lying naked, bedclothes tangled about her, reclining as she smoked a cigarette and told her about all the places she’d travelled to, and all the fun they could have once peace had been declared. Coming from her lips, it felt more than possible.
“Soon, Little Red, soon!” she’d say, full of confidence, beckoning her back for another kiss.
She wanted the war to end, of course she did, but what she didn’t want, was for them to leave their little Bletchley bubble – to have the people she’d become so fond of scattered to the winds; to have Naomi scattered to the wind. Once they were free to go, Naomi was exactly that, free. Off she would go on the train to London, and they would be over. Their affair would be over. It made her kiss deeper, hold on longer, and pray that little bit harder. She knew it was wrong, to pray for something so selfish; that it was wrong to pray for anything about Naomi at all – her confessions had hit an all-time high, and if her mother knew, she’d surely be cast out on the street like a dog – but she couldn’t seem to stop herself.
As soon as the war ended, and they had to return to their old lives, she would have to let go of more than Naomi, she would have to let go of Little Red too. She didn’t want to be shy, lonely, plain old Emily, but she was powerless to change things. If Naomi were a boy, and they were true sweethearts for all to see, instead of a closely guarded secret, she could declare that they were going away, that she was starting her new life with a fiancé at her side, but because Naomi wasn't a boy, she couldn’t do any of those things.
It terrified her.
They never gave what they shared a name, even though she knew right down to her bones that Naomi loved her, and the other girls never brought anything up. The rules were different, certain things were allowed. People tended to question less, far too preoccupied with things much bigger than themselves. As soon as peace was declared, and they were let out from their Hut one sunny day in early June amidst a flurry of celebratory hugs and kisses, she knew it was all over, but what she didn’t know, was how permanent that end would be.
Days later, in the chaos of the packed station, she, Lizzie, Polly, Anna, and Naomi all stood together, wishing away the inevitable as they waited for their trains. It had come too quickly. They weren’t ready. As they clung to each other, addresses and phone numbers pressed into their hands with promises to write and call whenever they could, it was clear they weren’t ready at all. One by one, the girls left, waving at those who remained, teary eyed through the windows.
They sat in the café across from the station, stirring their tea into oblivion to pass the time. The silence wasn’t comfortable. It all felt so desperately sad, and she knew all Naomi wanted to do was comfort her, but couldn’t. The only thing she could do was place her hand on the table, so they were almost, but not quite touching. Somehow, it made things worse. She would’ve been able to deal with it better if there had been some great argument or, if, God forbid they’d been discovered and kicked out of Mrs Ledbury’s in the dead of night, but there was nothing like that, only the hideous, painful pull of her family on one side and Naomi on the other. At any moment, it felt like she might break clean in half.
All their plans to travel so she could see the world as she’d so longed for - with Naomi at her side, seeing everything with her own two eyes instead of reading about it in books and magazine or watch Pathé newsreels - had already been ruined. It was easy to imagine in hushed whispers during the night or on cigarette breaks kicking the grass in the day. To go to Paris – or what was left of it – and see where Naomi had grown up, daughter of a soldier felt as simple as breathing. She wanted to know every tiny detail about the girl, the woman, who had changed her life so irrevocably.
Fate had seen to it that she wouldn’t be catching the train to London with her as they’d been planning for so long. They would live together, and get jobs, have a good life. They would be together, like real sweethearts. It was a pipe dream, part of her knew it – a very small part – even then, but it was better than thinking about the alternative, miserable and lonely in Bristol with no idea how to reconcile the person she’d become with the person everyone else she loved knew. One phone call from her mother was all it took to send everything in to disarray. She was needed at home, to help care for her father, because her mother was terrified they wouldn’t be able to cope. Though he’d been returned to them safely – unlike so many others she knew – he wasn’t the same man who left them all in 1939. Shot down over Darmstadt in 1944, he was now confined to a wheelchair and missing his left leg. Like her, he was days away from coming home, rehabilitated, so the doctors said, but she knew, from her brief visits and telephone calls, that he still had a long way to go. She couldn’t possibly do anything but go home and help. Her mother wanted Emily, and she so wanted to be Little Red instead.
Teacups drained and bill paid, she and Naomi ventured back outside to the platform. She wanted to get on the train with her, desperately wanted to, but she just couldn’t. She couldn’t turn her back on her family or her old life just because of Naomi, no matter how much she wanted to. Naomi understood, of course, and through the tears of her explanation, and the initial anger at their predicament, she made it clear that she would wait until such a time arose when she would be able to visit, or indeed, when it would be fine for Naomi to visit her. Her family knew of their closeness – just how close they had become – and her mother was thankful that Naomi had ‘looked after her’ so well; even speaking to her on the phone from time to time. Without trying very hard at all, she’d charmed them and won their hearts.
“I’ll write, I promise,” Naomi said, earnestly, as they stood waiting, hands perilously close to touching.
“I know,” she replied, knowing it was true. Naomi kept her promises. She ignored the tears that stung in the back of her eyes, wishing them away.
As the train pulled into the station, Naomi reached for her, pulling her into a hug. Self-conscious, she resisted it at first, but eventually gave in. Naomi clung on tight. She didn’t want to let her go.
It felt like forever and seconds had passed when she whispered in her ear, “I do love you, my dear Little Red,” overcome with tears.
“Always,” she choked out.
“We’ll get there. We’ll see Paris. I know it …”
At that, she pushed her away and broke down entirely, sobbing as she fled for the train, not bothering to apologise when she collided with the conductor.
Her train left at two o’clock in the afternoon. Her final ‘I love you’ was lost in the noise of the bellowing conductor and the train setting off down the track. She twisted and turned, craning to see Naomi until the last possible moment, trying to commit it to memory and stop it from fading.
She didn’t know it at the time, but watching Naomi through bleary eyes on that platform, waving her goodbye, growing smaller and smaller, would be the last time she ever saw her.
Once she was home, the pieces didn’t fit in quite the same way. It wasn’t home anymore. There was too much she couldn’t talk about and not enough to talk about. Weeks crawled by. All she had to remind her that days were passing was the time clock at Strachan & Henshaw. For a while, she worked on the factory floor with Kate, both in the same job their mother had taken during the war. She was utterly miserable. Everyone and everything felt foreign. They weren’t a family anymore. They didn’t know what to do, what to say or how to behave. Her father flew into rages at the drop of a hat, angry and frustrated; so far from the kind, gentle man she adored growing up. Her mother cowering timidly in the corner, burying herself in the extra laundry they took in to make extra money while she cared for their father. Her brother barely spoke at all. The model planes he used to love building were all taken down from the ceiling, stamped on, and smashed one Sunday, and he never bought any to replace them.
With Kate’s encouragement, she applied to be Mr Robinson’s secretary, both knowing that she wasn’t cut out for it. Even though she got it, and it meant she sat behind and desk and got to dress as nicely as rations would allow, it still wasn’t enough. She wanted more, craved it.
Her only solace came in the form of letters and postcards from the girls. It was a relief, when, in amongst the updates on Polly’s wedding, Elizabeth’s new job, Anna’s tales of her new life in America with a dashing GI, and Naomi’s talk of setting things up for her arrival to London and how much they had squirreled away for their tickets to Paris – they still held on to that hope, even though it grew fainter with each passing day – their unhappiness and their struggle to adjust in a world that had no real place for them peeped through. It made her feel better. It made her feel less lonely. The girls got some of the truth, when she wrote back, but it was Naomi who heard it in her voice, wavering on the line on the brink of tears as she crouched in the corner of in the telephone box at the end of the street; feeding it as much money as she could afford. The end of the call would always be the same, that things would get better, that they’d see each other soon, love implicit.
Soon never came.
The letter she received on that December morning is still her box of trinkets, but it doesn’t evoke a fond memory. It’s only there because she can’t bear, even now, to see it in plain sight. It arrived a week after there was no letter and no phone call from Naomi, the first time contact had been broken since they left Bletchley.
She’s only ever read it once, but every word is fixed in her memory, indelible. It arrived with barely a thud on the mat, along with a bill, and a postcard from her uncle Ted in Bournemouth on shore leave. Like always, she raced up the stairs and settled herself in the chair by the dressing table she shared with Kate. The writing on the envelope was neat, but unfamiliar, postmarked from Finsbury Park three days previously. Her heart leapt for all the wrong reasons.
Its opening line was the first indication of something wrong. Naomi never called her Emily, not in writing at least, and nor did any of the other girls. Her eyes scanned further down the page, eyes widening as she registered the words in front of her, flipping the letter over to see who it was from.
Warmest regards, Peter Campbell.
Naomi’s father, who she’d only spoken to on the telephone. It did nothing to settle her nerves.
Naomi spoke so fondly of you and your time in the WRNS, that I had to write. I wish I were sharing better news with you, and I debated telephoning, but it didn’t seem right, given all you’re dealing with at home, but I couldn’t delay things any longer. How to begin? I fear that wasting words on pleasantries won’t make this any easier for you to bear, and I’m sure you’re aware from Naomi, I’m no great wordsmith, that’s my daughter’s department.
Her brain lagged as she read, struggling to piece it all together.
Naomi borrowed my car, intending to drive down and visit last weekend, as you girls had always planned.
She closed her eyes, already half knowing what was coming. A tear streaked down her cheek. The weather that weekend had been terrible, remnants of snow and black ice on the roads.
She lost control of the car, and it rolled down an embankment straight into the Avon. The whole thing was witnessed by a gentlemen passing by. Even without the weather conditions hampering the rescue effort, she stood little chance of surviving.
It seems so extraordinarily unfair for her to be taken like this. It must sound selfish, given that we’re barely out of war, but that’s how I feel, what with our son, Patrick, still missing in Japan. Now this. My only daughter. Just twenty-five. It seems nothing at all. I have no idea how on Earth I can get through it. Her mother is inconsolable.
Little else registered after that as tears quickly fell, and she heard a deep, plaintive noise, suddenly realising it was coming from her own throat.
Naomi was gone. Her dear, sweet beautiful Naomi was gone. Every time she’d gone home throughout the war, she’d managed to return to Bletchley unscathed. It seemed the cruellest twist of fate that peace time killed her instead. She read the words, ‘funeral’ and ‘arrangements’ and she couldn’t breathe.
At the noise, her mother came bursting in, and prised the letter out of her hands, dropping to her knees in shock, and holding her tight as she registered what had become of “that dear girl.”
Even in that moment, that dark horrendous moment, she couldn’t tell her mother the truth. She’d told lies – omissions of fact – about them so often, that she wouldn’t be believed should she ever be brave enough to tell the whole truth. She wanted to go to the funeral, if only to see the girls again. Letters that followed said they’d be making the journey, but she didn’t have the strength. She couldn’t bring herself to see the church and all the people, or watch that coffin be lowered into the ground.
It’s one of her many regrets from those years.
Naomi never knew how much she loved her. Naomi never heard her say ‘I love you’ out loud, and that’s all she could think of for months, for years. She couldn’t even write it on the wreath her family sent.
No one ever thinks they’ll run out of time to say what they need to. There’s always tomorrow, stretching out before us, promising better than today. Tomorrows bring the courage that todays always lack. Tomorrows are the place where wrongs are righted. Tomorrows are in short supply now. She was in such a great hurry, to see, to learn, to do more. Driven by a hunger only youth can fuel, she took it all for granted, forgetting to take time to really see the world unfolding before her. That fuel’s burned out now.
She remembers the exact day it began dwindle, buffeted by the winds until it was nothing more than fumes.
If she could, she’d take back the ones she frittered away so carelessly. How she’d cling to them now, hoarding them as greedily as a child with a new favourite toy. It would help to make the reflection she sees in the mirror a little more accurate. It’s always something of a shock, when she looks now. Her auburn hair has long since turned grey. There are lines and wrinkles that multiply without her permission; worry lines, laughter lines, lines that signal the passage of years she’s managed to navigate. A record of all she is and all she used to be. Her eyes are still the same deep, dark brown they always were, but there’s something different; the colour isn’t quite as bright. The light behind them has gone. That’s the cost of surviving, she thinks.
Over sixty years ago, barely twenty-one, she halted on the edge of indecision. Paralysed with fear. Now, over at eighty, with the best of those years gone, she would make a different decision in a heartbeat, and live that life she and Naomi dreamt of after the war was over.
She thinks of Naomi and the other girls often, but especially Naomi, after doing her very best not to think of her for so long. Naomi was a secret, buried away in her deepest, darkest corner, packed up neatly with all the other things she dare not speak of. It’s appropriate that Naomi and Bletchley are so tightly bound, but it’s never made the denial of her any easier to bear.
They tried to keep in touch over the years, valiantly, but it was difficult, being scattered across the globe, seconded here and there for this or that job, quaint letters zigzagging back and forth full with euphemisms hiding their real work, just as it had done during the war. Eventually, the ties that once bound them so tightly grew too slack to hold them, and they drifted apart. No one was to blame.
She longs to go back, to twist and shape things differently, ignoring the cold, hard logic of science fact that tells her she can’t because of paradoxes, and the butterfly effect and opting for the so-called science fiction of parallel universes instead. She likes to imagine a world where she said yes on all the occasions she actually said no. Such a small, seemingly inconsequential thing, but she knows, deep down, that a ‘yes’ is all it would’ve taken; a single moment where she was brave enough to follow her heart instead of her head. To leap into the unknown.
How different things could have been.
With a sigh, she ties the ribbons back around each bundle, placing them back lovely as she has so many times before. Out of sheer habit, she presses her nose to the linen handkerchief that once belonged to Naomi. There’s no trace of the heady sweet perfume that once lingered there, and shuts the lid down on the box. It feels different to every other time she’s relieved those days. The click of the lock as it snaps into place feels final.
Everything safely back in the drawer, she draws the blanket tighter around herself, and curls into the side of the armchair. A habit from when she used to write away at night; sometimes in her diary, sometimes things that never quite became novels; their handwritten manuscripts lie unfinished in another drawer. Every part of her life is written down, save for Naomi.
Her eyes heavy, sleep finds her at last, lids drifting closed. She’s eighteen again, standing in Bletchley Park station with a small brown suitcase in her hand, waiting to be picked up, scrutinising the face of every person who passes. Across from her, a young man sits on a bench in a pinstripe suit and hat reading a newspaper. A whistle blows, and another train rolls in to the station. When the man lowers the paper, and checks his watch, she sees his face for the first time. It’s James, her James, handsome as ever, and no older than the day they met.
He folds his newspaper, leaving it behind on the bench, and comes toward her, barely leaning on his cane. Once they’re level, he smiles before taking her hand and kissing it gently.
“She’s here, darling. She’s been waiting for you all this time,” he says, turning towards the train as the passengers begin to step out on to the platform.
It takes her a few moments to realise, but there, in amongst the throng of people, is Naomi, with her beautiful blue eyes, platinum pincurls, and scarlet lipstick; as breathtaking as she remembers.
“Go, my love,” he says, softly. She turns to him, and opens her mouth to speak, but he shakes his head, urging her forward with the press of his hand between her shoulders instead. “Be free. Be happy. I only ever wanted happiness for you. I can give it to you now.”
Slowly, she weaves through the crowd, attention caught by faces she knows or thinks she knows, watching Naomi’s smile grow wider as she picks up her pace. In the middle of the crowded platform, Naomi sweeps her into a hug, clinging tightly. This time, there’s no fear, no hesitation and she doesn’t push her away. Instead, she pulls Naomi closer, lost in the warmth of her, inhaling the familiar perfume she’s always adored.
“I knew you’d come back for me if I waited long enough, my dear Little Red.”
“I love you,” she says, pressing her lips to Naomi’s.
Then, the rest of the world falls away. The crowd of onlookers, the platform, and the train disappear one by one. All she can see is bright white light. All she can feel is Naomi.