Time Took Form, June 1942
I hunched in the dark oak carrel in the “inner” library at Churchill College Cambridge where they keep the most secret papers of the war. It is a good carrel. My haunt. Perhaps, when I’m gone, they will put my name on a small brass plate and secure it to this, my “workshop.” Caretakers polish the carrel monthly. I feel honored, though it’s not done for my sake. For some days afterward, the carrel carries the faint breath of their China Wood Oil preservative. You can smell it when you put your head down for a moment’s nap, which I sometimes do.
Perhaps the scent of China Wood casts the spell, but I doubt it. A far more practical explanation exists for my insights. It’s Scholarship. Forty-seven years of toiling in this very spot. The archive’s staffs have come and gone and each of them has grown oblivious to my constant presence, which leads me to believe that no outer sign reveals that I have discovered a rent in History. A rent is a rip, a tear. And this hole that runs through History yields only to the pursuit of Truth.
I am an explorer, one who scouts clues, the archeologist who digs into original texts – letters, bills of lading, diaries, appointments. All of it. And most recently, here in my dim carrel, I found myself on the chlorine scent of a great secret. It always begins this way.
To get here, one must learn every name and every date, and every chart and every graph and never be fooled by facts. By discovering the connective tissue between Logic and Human Nature, I have met with Power and understood intent: the actual order of battle, not what’s written; the true choice of commands, not how they were contrived; the armorer’s list of weapons. Usually, that’s the one true element left to the history books.
In this way, with the papers lying before me in my carrel, I draw taut the swooning handwritten script of the Eyes Only memos prepared for Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service.
By such scholarship, I have on occasion experienced a catena, the nexus, the actual Talmudic Aleph of Time. It is the stirrup by which I haul myself through the rent in History.
The revelation begins as always. The temperature-controlled archive where I work grows humid with the odors of steam-engine events, the discrete gears and parts we mistakenly figure into destiny. There is no destiny. There is only the strange matter of History.
And so, the lights above my carrel dimmed, now. The odors changed from China Wood to the gray ozone embedded in wet city sidewalks. The signal of my success falls as drop of cool rain. Not just the sensation, but real rain, a light rain, not a London downpour. I am elsewhere. I have passed through the filter of Time entering the secret of secrets, the night passage History takes to avoid discovery. I have approached the Truth of War and Peace, Time and Never.
The onion skin paper in my hands – a memo dated June 1942, written by an industrial spy posing as an overlord of MI6, a treacherous little fellow named William S. Stephenson—wilted, but not before the letters of her name drifted in lock-step off page. I followed each serifed character as it lit the gloom and spelled the name: the C; the y; the n; the t; the h; the i; the a… Cynthia!
She was coming. I inhaled her famous perfume, Guerlain, always Guerlain, mixed now with the rain on a city’s concrete sidewalk. Cynthia, ace of spies, the double agent whom I had sought for so long, a woman whose beauty was an instrument of warfare. And yes, I had discovered her secret, my reward. For above my carrel, Time took form. An English plane tree loomed, now, along a Washington street. I checked my watch. It was near midnight. I guessed from the street lamps, blacked out against enemy bombers, and the prow-like hoods of the autos parked across the cobbled street that I was right on time. It was 1942.
The skinny rodent of the Cambridge collection had left me off at the Vichy embassy at 27 Wyoming Avenue in the capital’s Kalorama district, where the lords of foreign embassies, men in silken robes, women in saris, cloth from the moon, smiled at one other and sheathed their swords in diplomacy.
Midnight. The moaning sound of an auto accelerating from second to third gear, the smack of its tires on wet stones.
The yellow cab whipped past in a lash of rain and a spatter of headlamps. Cynthia’s coach. But it was not as I had imagined, for it was simply as it was. She and her French consort, a traitor driven past allegiance by her urgency, the romance of her low voice, her confident gaze, that naughty smile.
Not far away– actually only15-minutes distant -- in the Map Room of the White House, the Prime Minister of Great Britain sat anxiously with his ally, the President of the United States, and argued over a single essential and grand priority: save Russia first from the Nazis, or save England? Russia, the President drew out the word like clothesline, is killing more Nazis than all twenty-five of our allies combined. As he saw history, Russia could not be allowed to fall, or to negotiate a separate peace as they had in the First World War.
The taxi driver tooling over the gray stones along Wyoming was not just any cabbie. He was felon, released from prison for this occasion. Known only as the Georgia Cracker, he was once a criminal, but now he was an accomplice, steering through the mirror world of espionage.
We four gathered on this narrow ill lit street: the safe cracker, the traitor, the double agent, and me, the professorial agent of History. Our aim was nothing less than changing the course of World War II. But this could only be accomplished if I successfully managed each turn of events. I held their world in my wet palm, no more than a raindrop reflected in a taxi’s headlamps. And I had my doubts about what I might do. Such power.
The Georgia Cracker was picklock, a lank man who hoped to caress and seduce the old Mosler safe in the embassy’s code room into yielding the ciphers my trio sought.
But it would not be easy. Even allies posed a danger. Edgar Hoover and company were on guard. I saw his boys first, there, across the street, the fellows in the snub-nosed Plymouth, the FBI. I knew Cynthia feared this would happen, that they would foul her lines. So I boldly approached them, walking my shadow between the two and the G-men as a loud orange street trolley crossed the intersecting avenue ahead, a racket of sparks and galling iron wheels rebelling against its iron tracks. The cops never saw me. I blinded them with my sheet of onionskin stolen from the archives of the climate-controlled basement in Churchill College.
Thus the cab left off the Traitor and the Spy successfully, as the G-men watched the Cracker’s ruby red stoplights flash at the near corner of Wyoming and Connecticut Avenues.
I had succeeded for now. The double agent and the traitor had made their way into the consulate, and I knew exactly where they were headed. The were headed for trouble.
In the legation’s basement, they engaged the armed Vichy guard and his great Alsatian dog, plying le bon comarade with champagne and des petit gateaux. The guard trundled around his small office to find some plates while the Traitor risked flavoring the dog’s bowl with a strong dose of Secobarbital. He nearly failed, but for my shadow. For the tired guard’s sidearm clinked against his metal desk, and he sat down just as the Traitor straightened up. The guard’s holster smelled of leather and neat’s foot oil.
Soon the two left for their lover’s tryst on the consulate’s second floor, but not before providing the watchman a cool bottle of Dom Perignon. Their success depended on his habit of sipping and napping through the night, depending on the full-throated Alsatian to sound the alarm.
My Cynthia took joy in moments such as these, at the borderline of chains and wings.
Finally, upstairs, done with the guard and his dog, I heard Cynthia command her lover, the Traitor, to quickly undress. Why? he asked. She wagged her finger and tossed her soft blonde hair. Do you wear socks when you make love to me? We must keep up appearances, she said, the dog may bark and the old guard might snoop. Look the part. Then, with assurance, wearing only her transparent negligee, she said, I’ll go into the cipher quarters, the room where the Mosler safe slept and the secrets of war were kept. She opened the door to the salon listening for the big Alsatian. Trusting the silence, she crossed hall, and he closed the salon door behind her.
In her pale slip she was a ghost of wrinkled light in the darkened hall. To her the world felt over large, a place to take wing. Then the keys betrayed her, rumbling in the lock louder than a streetcar. Why so loud? she wondered, fearing the chains of noise. Worse, the door screamed in fear as she opened it. Calm yourself, she thought. At the window of the code room, the Georgia Cracker looked on, having climbed a ladder to the second story window. He tapped three times. In her mind she heard, The dog. The dog. The dog.
When she raised the double-hung window to admit the Cracker, it protested, squealing like a garage door. Certainly the Alsatian would wake. Calm yourself, she thought again. The Cracker kicked the window jamb as he entered, a noise like a battering ram. No dog, the Cracker said, drinking in Cynthia’s naked figure bare beneath her slip. She took charge. The damn safe, she said. Open the damn safe.
Yes, it was a Mosler. And, no! It would not yield to him. I knew it. Only I knew it! The safe would never open. Thus, the mission that night ended in failure. The naval codes were never captured. England was driven from Africa, kicked off yet another continent. And there was no Dunkirk this time, only the dead.
Without the secret French codes, the allies in their white hats would not know if the prideful French Navy ported along the North African coast remained in Hitler’s grasp. Vichy’s modern cruisers made up a daunting and formidable flotilla.
And so, that night, Churchill lost his argument with the American President who was supported aggressively by his generals, Marshall and Eisenhower.
President Roosevelt made the cold decision that under-armed and war weary Russia – with 200 Nazi divisions poised along its borders leading to the vast oil fields at Baku -- was a greater priority than the Africa. Stalin had to be saved. England could wait.
And all because the safe would not yield.
Without the French naval codes, the danger of sailing an American Army across the Atlantic to the shores of West Africa to save England was far too risky.
Modern history withered down to this moment. I had read and reread, sorted and collated, dated and cross-referenced… I knew that this was the aleph that formed the hinge of History. Only I understood the importance of this day, June 23, 1942. The Germans would attack Russia in five days. I reckoned that England’s future depended on a criminal, a traitor, and a double agent.
The Mosler did not yield. Which meant I must make a choice: for Russia, and perhaps a chance at peace at war’s end; or, for England, leaving modern history a trail of crises and a Cold War.
Oh, the irony! The Georgia Cracker had the combination down perfectly: 19 right, 3 left, 43 right, 27 left. But he failed, and when the safe would not open he lost faith in his skills and grew frantic. Time was short. This was my moment. Over and over he spun the dial on the safe with no luck. 19 right, 3 left, 43… Sweat ran into his eyes. He smelled of fear, that rusty stink of cat piss.
So History was up to me. I had earned the honor. I would not be entrenched in these records that brought me here if I chose Peace over Conflict for I knew that Peace withered and Conflict nourished.
So I took Cracker by the wrist and softened his hand. For the Mosler’s precise combination mattered as much as the Mosler’s trust. The safe required a certain familiar touch. It was a loyal safe, its tumblers old and set in their ways.
So I cooled the Cracker’s brow and slowed his delicate fingers as they turned the combination once again. It was no easy thing. He was determined, most of all stubborn. I so I decided he should fail, and I withdrew. The millions of lives saved by my decision to risk it all for the sake of Peace soothed me.
An instant before I had held the Georgia Cracker so closely to my own essence that he must have sensed the half-light of my breath. I had felt his pulse quicken. I made my decision and quit his aid just as his touch grew more gentle, more attentive. Too late! The old safe had friends, old and trusted friends the gentle touch I had suggested. No. No! The Mosler opened!!!
I was taken aback. Cynthia cried, Take them, take them and go.
They had the ciphers. The secret to the war. Ammunition for the British Prime Minister’s argument.
Fifteen minutes distant, in the White House Map Room, the Prime Minister received the word, his agents had captured the French naval codes; the door had opened for the invasion of Casablanca that November. And so, the secrets of the French fleet took precedence over the weakening powers of Mother Russia.
The two leaders toasted their final decision. To North Africa, the President said. To the Invasion, the Prime Minister replied.
They sipped the cognac the Prime Minister brought to celebrate the decision, a Remy Martin Louis XIII “Black Pearl,” a singularly limited edition of the distilled essence of the Colombard grape. The president remarked on the quality of the spirits. Very fine, he said. The cognac possessed the flavor notes of flowers and dried fruits, and produced a very soft finish. I know. I was the shadow in the corner where the wall of the fireplace met the wall with the mullioned windows. It was a very fine cognac, as the President said, and I drank it in … knowing I should have betrayed the Crown.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish