14th November 1940 - Coventry Carol by A.J. Hall
Frobisher reached for the packet of Players. Part of his mind prided him on the visible steadiness of his hand as he did so, noted the flex of muscle and tendon, appreciated how his veins showed as blue ridges overlying the slender bones beneath his spare flesh, the winter pallor of his desk-bound skin.
He lit up. The warm bite of smoke in his nostrils and lungs cosseted him, blunted the impact of the words staring up at him from the decrypt on the desk. “Punitive raid” “Korn” “Target 53” and – his almost automatic, pencil-scribbled inspiration of a moment ago - “Coventry?”
It is not so nor was it so and God forbid it should be so.
Nanny’s voice, reading aloud to him from a book of fairy tales under the shadow of the walnut tree in the garden of his father’s house, with the chimes from St Michael’s Cathedral punctuating her voice, like grace-notes, every quarter of an hour.
His father’s house. At least until the day the telegram came, just at the start of his second year at prep school, and they told him his parents had succumbed to the Spanish ‘flu, so that, bewilderingly, it was his house now.
“The worst day of my life. I don’t talk about it,” he had snapped at Jen once, and she, bless her, had never mentioned it since. Odd he should be deliberately calling it to mind now. Odd, too, how sharp the recollection of that day remained, after so long. The sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as the new bug tapped at the Form Room door, gained entrance, stuttered, “Headmaster’s compliments and Frobisher Major to see him in his study now sir,” and fled without waiting for an answer. His mind churning, frantic to recall all possible sins which might have merited such a summons. Hewitson, his particular friend that year, grimacing sympathetically at him as he rose from his desk. That great school personage Lethbridge-Stewart (in his penultimate term and captain of the XV) passing down the corridor just as Frobisher paused before the headmaster’s door. Lethbridge-Stewart recognising his trembling pallor and hissing, password-style, “Forsan et haec meminisse iuvabit” and then, realising that even the most basic Latin had forsaken Frobisher, adding, “Cheer up, old chap. The cane’s only on your backside for a moment: it can’t hurt you that much. Though next time – take a tip from me. Put a good thick grammar book inside your bags first.”
But the worst had been the Head, that hitherto unapproachable figurehead, epitome of bluff manliness and muscular Christianity. As the mists of memory swirled back, Frobisher knew he had known what was coming from the moment the study door swung open to reveal the Head looking – smaller. Grey. Uncertain. In that endless instant Frobisher understood everything, so that the Head’s so-obviously rehearsed words: “Frobisher, this is one of the most painful duties which can fall upon a man in my position. I am so sorry – so very sorry – that I have to inform you –” fell upon his ears with the hollow banality of phrases long known by heart.
They had deputed the junior mathematics master to see him home; a strained man with bad skin who had been badly gassed in the trenches and who seemed to have a blessed gift for silence, as well as a name and features which were almost completely forgettable and so had been duly forgotten.
Thoughts of that train journey conjured up a blurred intensity of misery, the only constant a shaming, unmanly longing for Nanny’s arms; her warm, starched, formidable presence standing as an impregnable defence between him and all the ills the world could deliver, as she had always done before he had grown to be a big boy, and gone away to school.
She should have been in the car awaiting him in the forecourt of Coventry station; his need of her was so fierce that in defiance of all etiquette he blurted out to Jones, the chauffeur, before even the clutch had engaged, “Where’s Nanny?”
He could hear the man’s soft, lilting Welsh voice now. “But didn’t they tell you, sir? Terrible thing, this influenza. Buried her on Wednesday, we did. Co-operative Funeral Service, and a ham tea afterwards, and everything proper.”
They said a man recalled his entire past life when drowning. People made films about it. Funny how life imitated bad art. Or, perhaps, it was the other way round. It made more sense if there were patterns one had to follow, and art reflected those patterns. He’d never been much of a man for art. Mathematics always seemed so much more precise. Mathematics, and a good detective story – he liked Thorndike and Poirot and these puzzle people, though he didn’t care for all this psychological stuff they were bringing in these days.
Frobisher took another deep drag on the cigarette. One of the girls would be along soon to collect results into her wire basket. The decrypt would be passed Upstairs and then –
Then nothing. He knew that with a certainty as heavy and implacable as if it were molten lead flowing down channels in which it solidified as it went.
Nothing whatsoever must imperil Ultra. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. If the Germans ever suspect we have cracked their Enigma code –
So – a bombing raid upon a particular English city must be allowed to proceed as planned. Even – if predicted in advance. One had, after all, to remember the broader picture.
He looked up at the big clock on the hut wall. Ten minutes to four. At five minutes to four the door of the hut swung open and one of the girls strode in, holding out her wire basket for the products of their desperation, triumph and ingenuity.
Frobisher suppressed a gulp. As she passed his desk he muttered, “Make sure that one gets escalated. Priority. I’m going off duty now; I’ll be back on at ten.”
He felt her assessing, soulless smile as he dropped the decrypt into her wire basket. She passed onwards.
At 4.08 pm, pedalling hard, he passed through the gates of Bletchley Park.
By 4.20pm he was on the steps of the Post Office, a pre-written telegraph form in his hand.
As the church clock struck half-past the hour he was still standing there, trapped on the threshold as though an barrier of invisible steel stood between him and the telegraph window inside. Someone brushed against him, called him by name, a voice he recognised. Dr Sato, who worked in Hut 5. Mechanically he smiled, muttered some greeting, waved Sato on into the dim interior beyond the threshold.
At 4.50, stiff and stumbling, he found his way into St Mary’s Church, and sank down into one of the pews. Unlike many chaps at school and Oxford Frobisher had never been a scoffer, but somehow the only words he could find were, “Oh Lord, let this cup pass from me.” He prayed them over and over.
The moon rose at approximately 6.35pm. The skies over Britain were clear, Munich still smouldered, and the Luftwaffe ground crew were running through final checks.
At 9.58pm Frobisher was back at his desk in Hut 17, staring down at his box of decrypts, trying to make sense out of chaos.
Sometime in the small hours – his eyes stung with the familiar sandpapered itch of another stretched late shift, and the ashtray on the desk overflowed - someone tapped him on the shoulder. He looked up, vaguely recognising the girl to whom he had given his decrypt ten hours ago.
“The Old Man needs to see you, sir. In his office. He said it wouldn’t wait.”
Donaldson, the Section head, did not look up as Frobisher entered. He twirled a paper-knife round on its point, round and round.
“You were right with your construe,” he said without preamble. “Coventry was the third target. We’re just getting the reports in now. Sounds like a pretty big one.”
Frobisher’s mouth was dry; he struggled to get the words out. “And the RAF, sir?”
“No.” Impossible to tell if there was any regret in Donaldson’s voice. “The PM – vetoed it. Conventional intell suggests they think we think it’s London. Can’t afford to let them know we know different.”
“I – see. Sir.”
The paper-knife continued to twirl, the point driving into the blotting paper, the pin-hole becoming a torn gash in the ink-stained sea of pink. “Coventry. You’ve got family there, haven’t you, Frobisher?”
“Ye – yes, sir. My wife and son.” And that fragile hope Jen raised in her last letter, almost too precious to think of, in case the bloom rubbed off. Not something to mention here.
For the first time Donaldson looked up. “Frobisher – in the circumstances, and given you were off-site for nearly six hours – after you delivered the construe - and we’d had a report you weren’t behaving quite like yourself – I sent – it was necessary to send someone round to check your digs.” He wrestled with the top drawer of the desk. The prevailing dampness of the great house must have swollen the wood and made it stick. He yanked it free with a protesting screech and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, smoothing it out on the blotter. “They found this in the w.p.b in your room. Anything to say?”
Frobisher gulped. “I – didn’t send it, sir. In the end.”
“I know. They checked the GPO logs.” Donaldson exhaled. “You bloody young fool. Get back to your desk, and try to justify your miserable existence for the rest of the shift. And thank your stars for whatever residual sense of duty made you change your mind at the last minute. I’ve got enough on my plate without treason breaking out in the huts.”
Frobisher’s hand was on the door-knob before the Section chief’s patented dry cough made him turn.
“Frobisher - James – “
“I just wanted you to know – my thoughts are with you. All three of you.”
In contrast to God’s, Frobisher discovered later that day. Divine attention, like the RAF, seemed to have been conspicuously absent from Coventry on the night of 14 November 1940.