The Body in the Blitz by Robin Stevens

May, Nuala and Eric are back in the second instalment of The Ministry of Unladylike Activity series. As the newest recruits of Britain's secret agency, it has been arranged for the trio to stay on a quiet street near the Ministry. However, not long after they arrive, a body turns up in a house down the street...

Robin Stevens
An image of the book cover of Robin Stevens' new book The Body in the Blitz on a plain blue background.

Chapter 2
From the diary of Fionnuala O’Malley

Saturday 22nd March

I’m writing this in the blue lights of the London train as it creaks along at half-speed. I haven’t been in London since the end of last year, Diary, and I’m a little nervous about being back.

There was a big air raid on London while we were at the Ministry last December, before we got whisked out again to Fallingford House, the Ministry’s country headquarters. That night felt like being stuck in an oven, the whole sky roaring with   fire, and then the next day the air was just powdered ashes and dust. That was the   first raid I’d really been in, apart from the one on Coventry in November. I’ve been having nightmares about them both, ever since.

Sure, I know by now that nowhere’s safe, not really. We just have to pretend it is, because otherwise we’d never do anything. But it still feels scary to me, to be going into the middle of a big city today. And scary to be doing spy training too. I’m afraid of a lot of stuff right now.

The good thing, though, is that May and I get scared in different ways. I think if she met Herr Hitler she’d just... bite him. Nothing bothers her – nothing but enclosed spaces, anyway, but don’t tell anyone I told you that. So I’m worrying about raids, and what London’s going to look like, and what the Ministry will be like, and whether maybe they’ll regret hiring us as spies and kick us out and I’ll have to go back to the little house in the village. But when I said all that to May, she just grabbed my hand and said, ‘Stop talking or I’ll be sick on you.’

May gets sick on trains, even the ones that go slow because of the war.

‘I don’t know if I can do that,’ I said to her. ‘I keep thinking of stuff to tell you about.’ It’s still weird to be on my own with her again. We have to pretend not to be good friends while we’re at Deepdean, so we don’t blow our cover.

‘All right, if you promise to stop saying stupid things, you can talk,’ said May. ‘Read me the paper, here. I stole it from that old woman on the platform.’

‘MAY!’ I said.

‘She didn’t need it,’ said May through gritted teeth. ‘If you disagree with me, I will be sick on you. Read the best bits.’

So I read to her about a body that had been found in a bombed-out church hall, and about thieves who had stolen paintings from a stately home, and about the new play at the Rue Theatre—

‘The theatre’s not important!’ said May.

‘It is to me!’ I said. Diary, you know Da had a theatre company when I was a little kid. I grew up travelling all over the world with him and my mam and the rest of the Company. Then my da died, and Mam and I came to England – which is how we ended up in Elysium Hall with all my English relatives, which is how May and I met, which is why I’ve ended up on a stuffed-tight slow-moving train to London reading the newspaper to May while a woman’s gas-mask case presses against the side of my head and some soldiers have a singalong in the corridor. But my point is, I care about plays, just the way May cares about murders.

Lookit, I guess I care about murders too. I solved one, last year, with May and Eric, so I’m a detective as well as a spy. That’s a secret, Diary – so don’t tell anyone.

But this time the detective part of me won’t matter. We’re going to London to help with spy stuff.

There won’t be any murders waiting for us this time.

We were met at the station by May’s big sister, Hazel.

She looks a lot like May, but calmer and more comfortable, instead of being spiky with rage – she’s fat, with a round, pretty face and long dark hair up in a bun, and a really nice smile. She was arm in arm with a tall blond man who kind of reminded me of one of those bouncy blond dogs that fetch sticks. He was wearing a Navy uniform, and he had a battered detective novel sticking out of one of his pockets.

‘I’m Alexander,’ he said, shaking my hand enthusiastically. I flinched a little. It surprises me when someone’s so friendly so quickly, when I don’t know exactly how to behave around them yet. Then Alexander picked up our bags like they were nothing. ‘You must be Fionnuala. Little May I know.’ He had an accent that blurred in and out of American and English like a radio tuning between stations, kind of like how mine is if I don’t pay attention to it. But he pronounced my name right, like Fin- noo-la. I was impressed.

‘I’m not little!’ snapped May at once. ‘I’m almost eleven! Don’t be an idiot, Alexander.’

He just grinned at her and started to lead the way out of the station.

‘Alexander’s my... friend. He’s on leave,’ Hazel told me, motioning us after him. ‘He wanted to come and meet you both.’

Is he going to marry you?’ asked May. ‘Have you told Father you’re marrying a gweilo?’

Hazel’s cheeks went pink. ‘May!’ she said. ‘Don’t be rude!’

‘I’m not! Rose says hello, by the way,’ May carried on. ‘And have you heard from Father? He hasn’t sent even one letter to us, and I think it’s the least he could do after he LEFT US IN ENGLAND DURING A WAR.’ Her voice rose.

‘May!’ Hazel’s kind face flickered and fell. ‘You know he’s busy in Hong Kong. I’m sure it’s important. Anyway, he’s with Teddy – don’t you want him to keep Teddy safe?’

‘I want him to keep us safe!’

And then she and May started to talk very fast in Cantonese, looking even more alike than ever. Sometimes I wish I had brothers or sisters. It must be nice to have someone who knows you so well, without any pretence. I stared around at the station. It echoed with noise and light – it was a bright afternoon, and the sun struck down through the panes of glass (and the gaps where glass used to be) in heavy stripes.

Then we stepped out of the station and we were back in real London.

I came to London just once before the trip last December, when I was really little, with Da and the Company, but I don’t have much memory of it. Sure, everything looks bigger when you’re small, and you don’t know how anything fits together because you’re just following adults around. But this spring London’s turned into an unfinished theatre set: buildings sheared off as cleanly as cut paper, doors open like they’re waiting for their cue forever, a painting hanging sideways on a wall that’s cracked through and useless. There are weary, determined-looking people in uniform everywhere, and dust has got on everything, so that none of it looks quite real. But then again, life doesn’t always feel real these days.

I thought we’d be staying with Hazel and Daisy in the at they share in Bloomsbury, but we weren’t.

‘Why?’ asked May.

‘The Mountfitchets’ baby,’ said Hazel briefly. ‘Their flat is right below ours, and she’s... noisy.’ Hazel paused, then added, ‘And Daisy will be back soon. Anyway, Zosia has a spare room you can use.’ We wound through the grey, cracked streets, dodging past adults in uniforms and children pushing scrap carts and ambulances on their way to their depots and newspaper sellers and women carrying shopping and a man with sergeant’s stripes on his shoulder walking with crutches, one trouser leg folded up emptily.

‘Where’s Daisy?’ I asked. It’s confusing when people you know talk about lots of other people you don’t. It makes me feel awkward, like I’m in the wrong room by mistake. When it happens, I have to pretend to be someone completely different – jolly English Fiona, the sort of person who fits in at Deepdean – so when I asked that question I made my voice as radio-English as I could. I know Daisy, at least. She helped me and Eric and May in our last case; she was actually the person who put together all the clues we’d found out and revealed the murderer. May’s still mad about that.

I was sure I’d said it in a friendly way, but Hazel’s face fell again and her fingers gripped her handbag nervously.

‘She’s on a business trip,’ she said briefly.

I thought I understood what she meant. A business trip was code for mission. Daisy’s a spy, see, just like Hazel.

‘Where’s she gone?’ May blared. ‘Is it important? When’s she coming back? What—’

‘May! Quieter! And you know I can’t say here. Loose lips.’

Then Hazel rushed us all the way across a park and past tiny shops and huge white marble buildings and down busy, dirty roads, all the way to the place we were staying, and where our friend Eric was waiting for us.

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