August 2023 Author Interview
The Silk Code
By Deborah Swift
Theme: Thrilling Thrillers
The Silk Code by Deborah Swift
Deborah Swift used to be a set and costume designer for stage and BBCTV and is the author of 18 historical novels, one of which has been optioned for TV. She has been published by Harper Collins, Headline and St Martin’s Press and has also published a series of books independently. Her most recent novels are the Aqua Tofana series set in Renaissance Italy, and The Silk Code and The Shadow Network set in WW2. Deborah has an MA in Creative Writing and teaches classes and courses in writing from her home in the Lake District, England.
England, 1943: Deciding to throw herself into war work, Nancy Callaghan joins the Special Operations Executive in Baker Street. There, she begins solving ‘indecipherables’ – scrambled messages from agents in the field.
Then Nancy meets Tom Lockwood, a quiet genius when it comes to coding. Together they come up with the idea of printing codes on silk, so agents can hide them in their clothing to avoid detection by the enemy. Nancy and Tom grow close, but there is a traitor in Baker Street, and suspicions turn towards Tom.
When Nancy is asked to spy on Tom, she must make the ultimate sacrifice and complete a near-impossible mission. Based on the true story of ‘Englandspiel’, Nancy must race against the clock to uncover the traitor, even if it means losing the man she loves.
Things to look at re developing tension in a domestic scene:
· The difference between Nancy’s hopes and the developing outcome of the evening.
· Setting - the use of the connecting door between the kitchen and the living room.
· How little description of WW2 there is to hold up the action.
· The fact that one character is oblivious to the underlying difficulty.
· The length of time the reader must wait before Nancy can confront Neil.
Extract from THE SILK CODE by Deborah Swift
Nancy and her brother Neil work for The Special Operations Executive, an organization set up in WW2 to train agents going into occupied zones. The SOE is the ‘Firm’ referred to in the extract. Nancy and Tom who both work there in coding have recently become attracted to each other, and Neil, Nancy’s brother, has suggested she invite Tom over for dinner.
Nancy had tidied the flat to make it look like a home, yet she was still painfully aware of how shabby it looked. Please, let it not put Tom off. She took Tom’s coat, scarf and hat and put them on the coat stand, tucking his briefcase underneath.
Better leave them to it, she thought, and went to do the cooking.
From the kitchen she could hear Tom and Neil talking. She winced. There were too many pauses in the conversation and not much flow. She worried about whether they were getting along.
When they got to the dinner table, the atmosphere was still strained. ‘You were a lawyer before the war, Nancy tells me.’ Tom said, pushing Neil to talk, instead of the other way around. ‘Were you in practice here in London?’
‘Only a year,’ Neil said. ‘Then war came, I joined the Firm, and here I am.’
Neil tucked into the food, but he didn’t answer any more of Tom’s gentle questions except with monosyllables. So much for him trying to get to know Tom. It made Nancy’s blood boil. Neil had asked Tom precisely nothing.
‘Tom used to work in exports, didn’t you?’ she said, drawing Tom into the conversation. Tom smiled and talked a little about his mathematics degree, his previous job as a logistics analyst, and how he got into coding. Neil gave grunts as if he was listening, but did nothing to keep the chat going, and the conversation stalled.
To relieve the tension, Nancy used the silence as an excuse to fetch the dessert: stewed rhubarb and a ‘custard’ – white sauce with yellow food coloring. Eggs were rationed and what was left of their dried egg powder was in the batter for the toad-in-the-hole.
When they’d eaten, Neil suddenly became animated. ‘Hey Tom, why don’t you help Nancy with the washing up,’ he said.
She glared at him. ‘You should be the one doing that, and our guest should relax.’
But Tom leapt up full of enthusiasm. ‘Good idea,’ he said, ‘where’s the tea towel?’
Tom seemed glad to be doing something practical, and grabbed the plates almost as soon as she’d washed them. It was nice to have him by her side. With Neil in the next room, it was as if a weight had lifted.
‘That was a lovely meal, Nancy,’ Tom said.
‘No it wasn’t,’ she said, ‘but I do my best with what I can get. Wish I’d had more sugar for the rhubarb.’ She turned to catch a glimpse through the half-open door of Neil bending down over Tom’s open briefcase.
Horrified, and uncertain what to do, she hurriedly pulled the kitchen door shut. So that was why Neil wanted Tom here. It wasn’t about meeting Tom at all, but about finding a way to search his things. Her face grew hot with shame.
Nothing bad will be in the briefcase, she told herself as she sloshed suds over the plates. At the same time, she knew Neil would be looking inside Tom’s things, and the whole idea made her arms prickle with gooseflesh. What would Tom do if he caught her brother prying like that?
She slowed her washing speed and handed Tom the last saucepan to dry. He smiled down at her. ‘We make a good team,’ he said, before putting the pan in the cupboard.
Gingerly she opened the kitchen door. Neil was still on his hands and knees under the coat stand. She shot him a look of daggers.
He saw her and looked sheepish. With horror, she saw him stuff something into his pocket. She dragged the door shut again and put her back against it.
‘Thank you for helping,’ she said to Tom, reaching out her arms.
She leant back against the door as they embraced, and he kissed her until she was breathless and tingles were shooting up her spine.
‘You’re beautiful, Nancy,’ Tom whispered. He kissed her again, but her thoughts were all of Neil on the other side of the door. ‘If this is what I get for drying up, I think I’ll do it more often.’
Gently, her shoulders tight, she extricated herself. ‘We’d better go and be sociable,’ she said loudly, and she opened the door to the living room.
To her relief, Neil was sitting on the sofa reading the paper. ‘Some great pictures here of the United Nations Day Parade,’ he said.
‘Yes, there was quite a crush in central London,’ Tom said. ‘Good thing there were no raids. Would have wiped out our personnel in one fell swoop.’
They talked a little more, but Nancy was livid. She kept seeing Neil’s furtive searching of Tom’s briefcase in her mind’s eye, and she was longing to confront him with it.
At last Tom said he must go, and Nancy had to hand him his coat and hat. She watched as he picked up his briefcase. He’d trusted her, and her damned brother had betrayed that trust. And so have I. The thought came unbidden.
‘Thank you,’ Tom said. ‘A real treat. It was lovely to see where you live.’ He gave a wave to Neil. ‘Thanks again for inviting me.’
Neil raised a hand but didn’t get up.
‘Have a safe journey home, Tom,’ she said. She saw him to the bottom of the stairs.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ he said, giving her a tight hug. His eyes were soft. ‘Lovely evening.’ Neither of them mentioned the fact it had been a bit of a disaster.
As soon as Tom was out of the door, she raced back up the stairs and was barely in the flat before she confronted Neil. ‘What the hell did you think you were doing?’
Neil held up his hands. ‘I had to know,’ he said.
‘What? What were you looking for?’
‘Anything that looks like it might lead us to his German friends.’
‘He hasn’t got any German friends. Why won’t you believe me?’
He drew out a piece of paper from his pocket. ‘This is why. It was in his briefcase. It’s a coded message sent to agent Kers in the Netherlands. Look – see this agent code at the top? That’s Kers, I’m sure of it. He’s one of our longest-running men in Amsterdam.’ Neil stabbed a finger down on it. ‘I’m going to check out this message first thing in the morning and get it decoded. You know as well as I do that no coded message should ever leave our building.’
‘There’ll be a good reason. He’s a coding expert, for God’s sake! Maybe he’s trying to crack the code or something. Let me have a look at it. I might be able to decode it.’
Neil snatched it away from her. ‘No. You’ll only see what you want to see.’
She was stunned. ‘Are you telling me you don’t trust your own sister? What’s happened to you, Neil? Are you ill? You’re frightening me.’
‘No. But your boyfriend seems to be ignoring security rules and I’ll have to report him.’
‘Don’t do that! We don’t know what the message is yet. It could be something entirely innocent. Please, Neil. Why are you doing this?’
‘Because we need to know.’