The security guard didn’t look dead at the time. I know that’s difficult to believe, but I promise it’s not a lie.
Even if I’d known, so what? People died all the time. My grandmother was proof of that. And the Bletchley Park Museum Board of Directors wouldn’t let me have her fucking journal, so what did I owe them? Nothing. They all had one of those umbrellas the Brits carried around – brollies, as my wife, Steph, called them – up their asses. Rules and regulations prohibited the release of any documents, they said, even to a granddaughter. Well to hell with them. There’s always a way around rules, you just had to be resourceful.
So I’d made a plan. All it took was some routine surveillance, something I’d learned about during my juvenile delinquent years. I was a careful teen. Sure I got caught, but that’s only because I hooked up with an amateur for that corner store break-and-enter. Steph, a Sergeant with the Bletchley Police, had no idea, thank fuck. Being married to an ex-con wasn’t something she’d appreciate, although technically I’d only committed misdemeanors, and my sealed police record was an ocean away, in Canada.
It had been a fluke that I’d seen the journal at all. I’d been visiting the code-breaking huts at Bletchley Park, as a chaperone for our 6-year-old son Theo’s school, when I realized he was no longer by my side. He tended to run off. I’d lost him on the train to Dover Castle last year. Lost is the wrong word. You can’t get lost on a train. I misplaced him only for a few minutes, 15 at most. He was perfectly safe – he’d walked down to the canteen car, searching for the candy cart with the hopping frogs he’d seen in the Harry Potter films. He was talking to a sweet old woman who’d turned into a hag when she berated me for not keeping him within arm’s reach.
I was determined not to let him wander away this year, so I strode down the long hall of Hut 6, where the code-breakers once worked, until I found him in the last room on the right. It was set up as an office, with everyday items scattered across the desks – cigarettes, purses, hats, pencils, note pads – as if their owners had only stepped out to get a mug of tea. Everything was nailed down. Did they seriously think a tourist might swipe a dusty scarf or a dried up lipstick tube? Videos played on the walls and audio sprang from the ceiling, the women discussing code-breaking strategies, cheered when they made progress, and huddled under a blanket to keep out the cold.
Theo was pounding the keys of an old typewriter. “Look Mommy, I’m an enigma.”
“You are that, but the Enigma’s the code machine, not the people.” I crouched down to his height. “Remember we talked about you staying close to me?”
“We are close,” he said, kissing my cheek and ruffling my short spiky hair. “See?”
As I returned his kiss, I noticed, behind his head, on the middle shelf of a battered wooden bookcase, a leather–bound brown journal in a glass case. The loopy handwriting caught my eye. My grandmother had raised me after my parents had died, so I’d grown up with that handwriting on notes with her whereabouts and grocery lists: Kat, I’m off to the library – be back before dinner, and Potatoes, bread, marmalade. Her face leapt to the forefront of my mind, and pathetic tears sprang to my eyes before I could will them away.
I had leaned forward, my breath so fogging the glass that I could barely read the words of the journal: Hoping for a break-through. Almost there. That was definitely Grandma’s writing. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when The Imitation Game film was released, that Grandma confessed to working as a code-breaker, during the war, before she’d married Grandpa and moved to Canada. I couldn’t get much else out of her, only that she’d kept several journals about her experiences, but had left them all behind. She told me they would have been destroyed. But her was one right in front of my disbelieving eyes.
I turned to tell Theo what I’d found.
“That’s your Great-Grandma’s!”
“That book?” he asked.
“Yes – holy fu…figaro!”
“What’s a fufigaro?”
“Never mind. Your Great-Grandma worked here during the war. She was a hero.”
“Only soldiers are heroes, Mommy. And they have to be boys.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“At school. Jonathan said so.”
“Yeah, well, Johnny’s an idiot.”
“That’s not a nice word.”
“Yes, you’re right. But he’s wrong. Your Mum is a hero, isn’t she?”
Theo nodded his head. “She catches bad guys.”
“Not everyone she catches is bad, Theo.”
“But they’re crimimals.”
“Criminals. It’s not as simple as good and bad.”
Grandma had rarely talked about her experiences in World War II. All she said was that she worked with the Foreign Office. She’d signed the Official Secrets Act and tucked away her stories forever. It was as if six years of her life never existed. She jumped from 1939-1945, the same way Theo jumped to the conclusion that good was the opposite of bad. If there was one thing that Grandma had taught me, it was that life was more complicated than that.
I needed to trace her words with my fingers, learn if the paper smelled of her perfume, read her thoughts, understand what happened to her during the war years. That journal was mine, damn it, and they had no right to keep it from me. Grandma wouldn’t appreciate me returning to my teenage ways to steal something of hers. But that couldn’t be helped. Besides, she was dead. She’d never know.
I’d bought a season pass to the park and become a frequent visitor. Looked for security cameras in the huts. There were none, which meant my plan was possible. One night, I lingered by the exit to watch their closing protocol. Ten guards fanned out before I’d been ushered through the gate. I’d sauntered a few steps down the tree-lined street and sat on a playground bench that was partially concealed by a faded orange jungle gym. About an hour later, eight guards exited, which left two in the park for the night.
The next few evenings, I’d volunteered to take our younger son, Evan, on his evening walk. We’d given up trying to get him to fall asleep in his crib, so buckled him into the stroller and pushed him around the block until he could resist dreamland no longer, and his head rested on his shoulder, mouth wide open in defeat. Steph had been working long days investigating local break-ins, so I suggested she could take the easier job of putting Theo to bed. All he needed was a few pages of Sherlock Holmes for Kids before he dropped into dreams about cops chasing robbers.
I’d altered Evan’s regular walk so that it took us past Bletchley Park’s front gate. It wasn’t as if I were involving Evan in a life of crime. It was simple multitasking: I was casing the joint and he was benefiting from fresh air. I timed our arrival so he’d be asleep and I could take up my perch on the bench. Their security routine seemed consistent. I could manage to avoid a pair of mall cops in a multi-acre park. Steph calls them professional nappers.
I didn’t enjoy lying to Steph. Not about the walks – I really was taking Evan out in his stroller. Not about my past – that was more like neglecting to tell the whole story. But after railing about how the museum had virtually stolen my property for weeks, she had to think I accepted I’d never get the journal or she’d wonder why I finally shut up about it. Steph held me in such high esteem, how could I spoil that? I was doing her, and our marriage, a kindness. Steph and I had been together for seven years and I’d never gotten around to gelling her I’d done 6 months in juvie for a break and enter. Now was not the time for confession. Time flies when you’re keeping a secret.
“Kat, your obsession over the journal is making you ill,” Steph said one Saturday when the boys were playing ball in the garden. She was braiding her long hair so it was up for her evening shift, a cup of milky tea beside her. “It’s like when you’re chasing a story that’s not working out, and you refuse to give in. It doesn’t do anyone any good.”
Grandma had gotten me my job as a reporter with the Bletchley News by pulling some strings with the past editor. He was a co-worker from her service with the Foreign Office, she said. Grandma worried that, once I was home from university, I’d fall into my old habits with my old crowd. I accepted the offer because I thought the same thing. Now I know the whole Foreign Office bit was a bunch of crap. The editor had likely been at Bletchley Park as well.
“I know,” I said to Steph, gulping my black coffee. “It’s time to let the journal go.”
“What?” she turned to me. “You must be sick. Did you just agree?”
“I can be reasonable,” I said.
“Heads up,” yelled Theo, as the ball rolled towards us. He’d learned the phrase playing cricket and used it every chance he got.
I put my hand to my heart and gasped. “Thanks for the warning. That might have smashed us in the head.”
Evan giggled as Steph tossed the ball back. “You always skirt the line between dedication and obsession,” she said to me.
I was just a reporter for the local paper, a dozen or two stories a week on everything from garbage collection to dog shows. I went at it like I was an investigative reporter for The Guardian. Corruption stories were a good outlet for my seamier side. Snooping for supporting evidence, trailing politicians, badgering people for quotations. Telling mistruths to get what I wanted.
“I’m thinking that maybe that’s not the only journal she kept,” I said. “There might be another with the things I put in storage when she died.” At least, there’d be when I created one.
“And if there isn’t?” she asked.
“Then I have you, and the boys. A present and future family if not a past one,” I said.
“Just because you don’t have a journal doesn’t mean you don’t have a family history.”
I kissed her and went into the house for more coffee. Steph was sweet but deluded. She had parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all within a few miles of here. I had her, our sons, and a gaping hole that other relatives should have filled.
Steph followed me in and rinsed her cup in the sink, keeping an eye on the boys through the kitchen window. “I wish you’d never seen that journal. All it’s done is bring back your grief.”
“It didn’t go away,” I said. I’d just forced it into an invisible safe in my memory, slammed the lid, and spun the lock.
“I know, but you were getting better.”
If you measured “better” by the fact that I’d managed to keep my anger in check when she and the boys were around, then yes, she was right. It you measured it by the way my anger simmered within me, leaking out my nose and my ears while I mashed my lips together so I wouldn’t erupt at my family, then no. Grandma couldn’t be furious that she’d died from the flu, so I was enraged on her behalf. Such a fuckwad way to die. Her journal, though. That’d help her live on.
Finally, my plan in place, I’d told Steph that I had to work late, fact-checking an article I was writing about fund-raising efforts for renovations at Bletchley Park. I entered the park less than an hour before closing and meandered towards the motorcycle exhibit in the museum’s reconstructed garage, pretending I was entranced by the stories of the Dispatch Riders who’d carried coded messages in sealed bags to codebreakers in Hut 6. The main rule of their work was to have “zero curiosity” about what they transported. How whacked was that? These messengers zipped across London, breezed through security checkpoints, and commandeered petrol from army vehicles. How could they not be curious? Or maybe they were just high on the excitement of it all. Grandma said that curiosity was fuel for the imagination. So, when you think about it, it’s all her fault I wanted her journal.
“Bletchley Park is closing in 30 minutes,” came a tinny voice from an overhead speaker. “Please make your way to the exit.”
I glanced over at Winston Churchill’s Rolls Royce on the other side of the garage. He’d used it for his secret visits to Bletchley, which at the time was known only as a cipher training establishment. The car was bright maroon – you’d think they’d have chosen something less flashy. The first rule of deception was to blend into the background. But if you were the British Bulldog, I guess you deserved the attention.
I glanced around one last time. Seeing no one, I popped the trunk and hopped into the dark interior. I had to squiggle and squirm to get comfortable. The pockets of my cargo pants were jammed full of supplies that I’d smuggled in. It was much easier to be a criminal today than when I was a teenager. All I had to do was go to Amazon.co.uk, search for lock-picking tools, select a travel set, and make sure I got to the post before Stephanie. I also had a flashlight, a can of mace, a few other tools, and a fake journal. I’d made a strategic error by being so vocal about the journal belonging to me. If it went missing, I’d be the prime suspect. So I’d bought an old journal and created several entries, paying special attention to the open page of the real journal. My practice faking Grandma’s writing to get out of class and detention when I was in high school proved useful.
I listened as the announcements counted down to 15, 10, and five minutes. I distracted myself from worrying about what would happen if I got caught by thinking about how BB’s ass had once sat a few feet from where my head rested. Gross. Or maybe I should feel privileged to be in the presence of evaporated greatness. Churchill was more revered than royalty around here. Grandma might even have met him on one of his visits. Couldn’t ask her now. Fuck. I’d thought she was the person I knew most in this life. Turns out she was a stranger. A fucking liar. I knew that wasn’t fair but I didn’t care.
“The park is closed. All visitors should leave the park immediately.”
As my legs cramped in the trunk, I listened to the whistling of a security officer approach and dwindle away. I waited until it was past sunset, as forecast by my phone’s weather app, and creaked open the lid.
My breath skipped when I saw a guard propped on a chair in the corner. Stick thin with wispy grey hair. I froze. Had he heard me? His head was tipped forward. Asleep, I thought. Well, that was good news and bad. Bad because he might sit right there, in spitting distance, the whole night. Good, because he was asleep. If I was quiet enough and lucky enough, I could slip past him. Which I did. Because frankly I didn’t have the patience to wait around, hoping he’d wake up and shuffle off on his rounds.
I skulked across the grass that used to be a tennis court, avoiding the light cast onto the ground by streetlamps. When I was within sight of the green code-breaking huts, I crouched down. There was still one other guard on duty and presumably not sleeping, and I’d no idea where he was. It was unfortunately a beautiful night; there were no clouds to hide me from the moon, although my body felt electrified, as if a thunderstorm were on the horizon. It was a weird mixture of fear and excitement – I hadn’t quite decided which feeling I should embrace.
The words jolted me towards fear. I flattened myself to the ground and inched behind a nearby hedge. Footsteps passed and stopped. The guard fumbled with the walkie-talkie, pressing the talk button on and off, on and off. It squelched into the otherwise silent night.
“Brad, where the bloody hell are you?”
The guard continued away. I hoped he found his partner and woke him soon. While I preferred only one patrolling guard, the last thing I needed was one of them on high alert, searching for the other. I wanted them complacent and bored. That was what led for a successful pilfering. Not that I did that anymore. Except for tonight, that is, and I had good reason. I was not leaving without that journal.
After a few minutes of silence, I dashed towards Hut 6, ducked behind the brick wall that surrounded the building, and waited. No running feet followed me. No one shouted for me to stop. I tried the door. Locked, as expected. I sidestepped over to the adjacent window that I’d unlatched the last time I’d been here. I pushed upwards and it slid open. I was glad I wouldn’t have to pick the lock. I was way out of practice and this lock looked more complicated than the one securing the journal.
I scrambled through the window and dropped to the floor, scanning the room. The space was lonely and still – during the day, the huts were animated with the sights and sounds of the war workers but at night, their presences faded away, mirroring the way history had mostly forgotten them outside these walls. The way Grandma’s life had been hidden from me. I crept down the hut’s hallway to the last room on the right, pausing at the entryway. The moon shone through a crack in the curtains, throwing a spotlight on my Grandma’s journal. It beckoned me forward. I advanced toward it, pulling the lock picks out of my pocket. I hunkered down in front of the case, selected the pick that I’d marked with a red sticker, and inserted it. After a few moments of doubt, it clicked open and sirens sounded. I dropped the pick and scrabbled against the wall.
There was no security system on this case. I’d made sure of it. It had to be a coincidence. Something was going on, but that didn’t mean I shouldn’t move forward with my plan. Panic was for pussies – all it did was get people caught. I crossed to the window and peeked out. The siren was coming from a police car that was driving towards the garage. Nothing to do with me. I went back to the case, opened it, and clipped the metal wire holding the journal down. I eased the journal out, resisting the temptation to read it, and tucked it into my pocket. As I was pulling out the fake, I heard another siren, this one the familiar screeching of an ambulance. No problem. Though I didn’t like how busy it was getting out there.
Now the tricky part and the reason I didn’t want to try this when the museum was open. I had to solder the wire back together without burning my fake journal. I’d bought a soldering iron, thanks once again to Amazon, and practiced in our garage. I put on my sunglasses, lit the iron, and froze when the lights to the entire hut turned on.
“We’ll clear the entire park just to be sure. Send more constables.” Shit. That was Steph’s voice. Shit, shit, shit. She wasn’t supposed to be working tonight but must have gotten called in. We had a neighbourhood babysitter on standby for emergencies. I heard her footsteps approach. There was nowhere to hide, so I stood to greet her. Might as well have some pride while getting caught.
“Bloody fucking bollocking hell,” Steph said. When she was angry, she mixed British and North American swear words. It was endearing – when it wasn’t directed at me. She looked at me, at the journal, at the soldering tool in my hand.
I opened my mouth to explain.
“Stop. I don’t care what you have to say for yourself.” She took three deep breaths.
“Don’t say a word.” She paused. “Please tell me you had nothing to do with that dead guard.”
“The one in the garage.”
“Shit, I thought he was sleeping.”
“You saw him?”
“Do you know what happened? Did you see anyone else? Did you hear anything? What time was it?” She advanced towards me with every question.
“No, no, no, and just after sunset.” Good thing I was used to her interrogations. She’d pulled me out of a tight spot once before. I was 90% confident she’d do so again. I looked at her face, red with fury, and readjusted my odds to 70/30.
“Right then. Looks like the guard probably had a heart attack. So you just put everything back as it was and I’ll try to keep you out of my report.”
“Try?” I was at 50/50.
“Someone died, Kat. If there’s a murder investigation you’ll have to come forward as a witness. If I forget I’ve seen you and you come forward on your own, you’ll get probation at most.”
“And you? There goes your promotion if your wife’s committed a crime.”
“Yeah, I know,” she spat.
Ok, that hurt.
“Put that back,” she said, pointing to the fake journal in my hands. She stomped to the entrance of the hut, turned off the lights, and slammed the door behind her.
I looked at the fake journal. If I were to follow her order to the letter, I’d have to put the fake one in the case. I pulled out the real journal and balanced them, one in each hand. Steph would never know the difference, but I would. So I tucked the real one back in my pocket and installed the fake, soldering it in and locking it up.
When the coroner confirmed Steph’s guess that the guard died, and instantly, of a massive heart attack, I knew I was in the clear, with the cops at least. And with my conscience, too. Because I’d wondered what might have happened if I’d called for an ambulance or tried CPR. But none of that would’ve mattered. The guy was already dead.
No one noticed the journal was fake. Steph would have inspected it after I’d left – she was nothing if not thorough. But she must not have seen any difference from the photos I’d shown her, and that one time I’d taken her to see it. She didn’t say a word about catching me, but I knew I wasn’t forgiven. She could hold a grudge as if it were a chokehold, slowing squeezing the breath out of her opponent until she was nothing more than a husk. But needs must, as they say.
I stashed the real journal in the back of my sock drawer, waiting four excruciating days until she had her next shift. When she finally walked out our front door into the night air, her uniform clean and crisp, I tiptoed up the stairs so I wouldn’t wake the boys, and snatched the journal from its hiding place.
I know I’d lied to my wife, but fuck if it wasn’t worth it. Grandma’s journal didn’t reveal anything earthshattering, but it gave me a lens into her life, helped me understand her better. She wrote about dealing with the bitter cold of winter and the claustrophobic heat of the code-breaking machines. Caustic fumes mixed with smokers’ nicotine infiltrated her lungs and left her with a hacking cough. She wrote of feeling a connection to the other workers that was tinged with a paralyzing fear that she’d let slip a crucial secret. The work in each hut was isolated from the others, with the codes she’d worked on slipped through a pass-through between buildings.
Grandma wasn’t complaining. It was all “keep calm and carry on” which was how she’d raised me. When Grandpa died and then my parents, Grandma and I had put one grieving foot in front of the other. I’d gone off the rails for a few years, and she let me, knowing she couldn’t force me back. I broke into random stores and even a few homes, stealing stupid stuff – candy bars and family photos. My stint in juvie stopped my crime spree, temporarily it turns out, but it left me as cold and untrusting as ever. I thought that meeting Steph had healed me, but Grandma’s death had cracked open that façade.
Inside the journal was a photograph of Grandma with three women, dressed in smart frocks. I peered at their legs – it was hard to tell in black-and-white, but it looked like they had on colourful mismatched stockings, with crazy stripes and shapes. I put down the photograph and raced to the sitting room, grabbing an old photo album. Midway through, lodged underneath the cellophane matting, was a class photograph of me in Grade 9, taken only a few months after my parents died. I remember my overwhelming grief, and anger, wondering why it had to be my parents, on that night, on that road, just as a transport truck careened around that corner.
The night before the photograph was taken, I’d told Grandma I didn’t want to go to school, there was no sense in carrying on. Holy shit, I’d forgotten until just now, but she’d talked about the war then. She’d told me about the horror of the Blitz, never knowing when a bomb would fall from the sky. About hiding in basement shelters, wondering if the roof above would protect you or smother you. Of going to the Government Code and Cipher School, as she’d called it, in an unfamiliar small town and boarding with strangers. With no knowledge of the affect they were having, of what would happen with the war. But they wore colourful stockings. Because in a world where everything was uncertain, and you kept your chin up and hid your fears, their coloured stockings were one small act of rebellion. A splash of red or yellow or orange against an otherwise grey life.
I examined the photograph of me. I was wearing purple and blue stockings with a black dress. I’d no idea where she’d found them, but she’d pulled them out that morning. I don’t remember much about that day, but I do remember feeling as if the stockings were a shield against the world, and there was a hint of a smile on my face in the photograph.
My optimism was short-lived, a lesson I wasn’t ready to learn. But maybe I was now. Grandma’s journal unlocked something in me, a deep understanding of how armour protected, but also divided. It was an uncomfortable vulnerable feeling that I pushed away but it kept hammering at me.
When Steph came home after her shift, I was sitting on our bed, the photograph in my hand.
“Are you ok?” she asked. “Did the boys keep you up?”
“I didn’t return the journal.”
“I made a fake one.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Would it have done any good?”
“Maybe.” Not likely. “I’m sorry I lied to you.”
Silence. Then, “You lie a lot.”
“I know. Never about us, though. Or how I feel about you and the boys.”
“I know. That’s why I ignored the Amazon boxes in the recycling. But I’m tired of it.”
“So am I.” I paused and flopped back onto the bed. “I know it’s selfish, but I can’t get over the unfairness of Grandma’s death, dying of the flu.”
“It’s not unfair,” said Steph, kneeling beside me and taking my hands. “She lived into her 90s and died at peace. With you by her side. That’s a triumph, after everything she lived through.”
“I guess.” Why did Steph always make such goddamn good points?
“If you keep the journal, then no one else gets to see it. To learn from your Grandma. Is that what you want?”
“It’s not like anyone can read more than one page. It’s chained up under glass.”
“True enough, but…”
“You’re not ok with me stealing it.”
“No, but I’m not forcing you to put it back. It’s your decision.”
Oh, no. The guilt trip tactic. I had no problem resisting it with my Grandma, but Steph was another story. I knew what was coming next.
“Don’t you want to be a good role model for our boys?”
“I’d put it back if I could,” I said, “but then I’d have to break back in. Two crimes doesn’t equal justice, does it?”
Steph sighed. “We’ll figure it out. For now, it’s enough that you’ll agree to return it if we can.”
“Fine,” I said, “but I’m keeping this photo.”
“Deal,” said Steph. Just then, Evan caterwauled from his crib. He hated waking up, as if the morning were created just to piss him off.
“I’ll get him,” I said. “Do you want breakfast before you go to sleep?”
“Just a cuppa. I’ll put the kettle on.”
I hugged Steph and breathed in a mix of shampoo and sweat. One of my favourite smells. Maybe someday I’d tell her about my teenage years. Someday. Secrets had a way of forcing themselves out. Maybe that was a good thing.