The older Stephen wonders if his younger self had finally understood who it was that called him. He remembers his reaction—frozen and unable to move. He describes the voice: it was not foreign or tramp-like, but familiar. The man asks if “Bobs” (Keith’s mother’s nickname) had sent him, and this shocks Stephen because he had previously only heard Keith’s father call her that. The older Stephen states that at that point, he did not think the man was an old tramp, but certainly a “German who was entirely English.”
Despite the familiarity of the man’s voice and the fact that he knows Stephen’s name, Stephen refuses to let go of the idea that the man is a German. In fact, that idea is so deeply engrained in his mind that it probably prevents him from realizing earlier that the man is Uncle Peter. His inability to concede the man’s “Germanness” speaks to the stubbornness of imagination and also the War’s effect of perpetuating nationalistic prejudice against Germans. Stephen has come to associate “Germanness” not with a country at all, but rather with a set of negative and alien qualities.
The man asks for Keith’s mother, but Stephen , who can mostly just shake or nod his head in response, says she can’t come. The man then realizes that Keith’s father, “Ted,” must have found out the truth, and he groans. He then asks Stephen to tell Keith’s mother that he is sorry. Stephen just keeps nodding, unable to answer the man fully. The man finally says that there’s nothing else to say—“it’s over.”
The story slowly unfolds its truth as Frayn offers the reader clues about the man’s true identity—clues that the young Stephen still cannot or will not see. Furthermore, in his fear and confusion Stephen is frustratingly unable to speak clearly, when the man obviously desires company and answers to his questions.
Stephen then tries to leave, but the man asks him to stay. He asks why Keith’s mother picked Stephen for this task, but Stephen can only shrug. The man comments on how Stephen and Keith were such a “nuisance” before with their spying games. The man then asks how Milly and Auntie Dee (who he only calls “Milly’s mother”) are. Stephen still can’t help thinking of the man as being German (and giving off germs), even though the man clearly knows Stephen and the other people of the Close.
It’s established that the man knows the more intimate names of Mr. and Mrs. Hayward, and he is genuinely concerned about Auntie Dee and Milly, though he has a complicated relationship with them all. All this makes it rather obvious that the man is Uncle Peter, but Stephen still cannot accept this fact and clings to his convictions about the man’s Germanness (and germy-ness). We also see once again how Keith and Stephen’s spying games are perceived by and affect people in the real world.
The man then starts ruminating to himself, talking about playing the “game” of war and eventually, “up there in the darkness five hundred miles from home,” finding a sudden darkness and terror within himself. He starts to cry, and describes how he’s failed those who trusted in him, and is now an outcast. He says the only thing that keeps him sane now is keeping track of the trains. He also tells Stephen that “It was always her. From the very beginning.” The man then hands Stephen a piece of silk to give to Keith’s mother, and he tells Stephen to tell her, “forever.” Stephen takes the silk and runs out.
This brief conversation contains most of the explication for the backstory of the book—Uncle Peter was always in love with Keith’s mother even as he was married to Auntie Dee; he deserted the Air Force, whether out of fear, PTSD (suggested by his description of an inner terror and “darkness”), or discomfort with the bombing of civilians, and has been hiding in the Barns; and Keith’s mother has been taking care of him and probably conducting an affair with him. This is a tragic and emotional goodbye, then, as it seems that Uncle Peter and Mrs. Hayward will never see each other again, and there is only a frightened child to deliver their final messages to each other. Stephen’s role is thus once again placed in the context of a larger, more complex story.
Stephen keeps the piece of silk, which is a pale green map of Germany (“his homeland,” Stephen thinks), with him all the next day, trying to figure out how to get it to Keith’s mother and tell her the word “forever.” In hopes of meeting her, after school Stephen goes to the lookout and finds that Barbara has made it tidy and changed the sign from "Privet" to "Private." At first he is worried that Keith will see this, but then he thinks that Keith will never come to the lookout again.
While it seems that Uncle Peter wants to give Keith’s mother the scarf primarily because it’s one of the few possessions he has left, and he wants her to have something to remember him by, the fact that it’s a map of Germany connects to the boys’ original suspicion of Keith’s mother being a German spy, and contributes to Stephen’s idea of Germanness as representative of certain sinister and mysterious qualities, rather than a real country. The fact that the “privet” sign is corrected is telling, because it suggests that the multiplicity of meanings it held before is now being reduced to one truth, and that the novel is approaching the actual meaning of “x.”
Stephen sees Auntie Dee and Milly leaving the Haywards’ house, with Milly crying loudly. Keith’s mother follows them, but when she reaches Auntie Dee’s house the door is shut. Keith’s mother knocks, but Auntie Dee doesn’t open the door. Stephen notices that Keith’s mother is wearing another scarf around her neck today. He feels like he’ll never be able to deliver the man’s message to her.
Keith’s mother and Auntie Dee are now estranged as well, which likely means that Auntie Dee has learned that Keith’s mother was having an affair with Uncle Peter. Mrs. Hayward is totally alone now, a prisoner in her home.
After dinner Stephen goes back to the lookout, and he finds Keith waiting for him, the bayonet in his hand. Stephen considers showing Keith the piece of silk as a way of avoiding his anger, but decides that he cannot. Keith, his eyes “cold,” angrily accuses Stephen of showing “her” their things. Stephen denies it, and Keith, calling Stephen “old bean,” reminds him of their oath. He then makes Stephen swear again that he didn’t reveal their secret things. Keith then opens the box and takes out the cigarette packet Barbara had brought—proof that she did see what was in the box.
This is the ultimate break between Stephen and Keith. Keith seems to be wholly following in his father’s footsteps now, mimicking both his language and his cruelty. The Stephen at the novel’s start might have shown Keith the scarf in hopes of winning his approval, but by this point Stephen is brave and mature enough to keep this important secret from his unkind, immature “friend.”
Stephen, ashamed, denies it again, but Keith smiles and pushes the bayonet against Stephen's throat. He keeps pushing it harder until it draws blood, and Stephen can feel the “germs” on the blade entering his body. Stephen starts to cry and bleeds more, and he considers that Keith is taking out his anger against his mother as well against Stephen. Stephen then realizes that Keith has learned this kind of torture from his father, and he suddenly realizes why Keith’s mother wears a scarf in the middle of the summer.
Keith’s show of anger as physical torture clearly exemplifies that the War has been welcomed into the home, since it is at home where Keith has learned how to torture Stephen. Keith’s father punishes Keith’s mother in the same way, and she covers her wounds by wearing a scarf around her neck, making all her previous scenes even more tragic in retrospect. Despite Stephen’s earlier praise of his friend, it now becomes abundantly clear that Keith is in fact a brutal, even sadistic child, and the other children of the Close might avoid him not because of his wealth but because of his cruelty.
Stephen again considers showing Keith the silk scarf in order to make everything better, but again he decides he cannot. Finally Keith removes the bayonet, and coldly mocks Stephen before turning to go. Stephen realizes that Keith “lost his nerve a fraction of a second before” Stephen lost his, and that the world has changed once more.
Once again Stephen makes a brave decision to keep the scarf a secret from Keith, and he comes to an important realization—he is braver than Keith is. This is yet another shift in Stephen’s perception of the world, and it’s clear that he and Keith will never be friends again after this moment.
Stephen goes home and tries to hide his neck wound, but his parents notice it and are horrified. As Stephen’s father cleans the wound, Stephen cries, but he doesn’t answer any of their worried questions and says nothing about what happened. His parents also ask about the missing rations, and Geoff speculates about what could have happened. Barbara then knocks on their door to ask for Stephen, but he continues crying.
Until the very end, Stephen protects Keith by keeping anything he does wrong secret. He does not rat out Keith to his parents, and doesn’t condemn him in his memories. Once again Stephen’s parents show themselves to be compassionate and supportive, despite his lack of appreciation for them.
Time skips forward, and Stephen wakes up from a deep sleep. He briefly panics because he does not remember where he put the piece of silk. He then finds it under his pillow, now smeared with his blood, and decides to go out in the night to hide it. Once again he is afraid to sneak out, especially because tonight is finally the new moon, but he gets dressed and goes outside.
Stephen takes responsibility for the burden that has been placed on him, and makes one last brave journey into the night. The fact that it is finally the night of the new moon—when Keith’s mother’s “x” meetings were supposed to take place in the sinister darkness—makes this all the more symbolic, as Stephen is facing another of his greatest fears.
Stephen decides that the only safe place to hide the scarf is beyond the tunnel. As he passes through the tunnel, something seems wrong, as if “the whole sound and shape of the world has become in some way dislocated.” Stephen makes it to the fence, and buries the scarf in the place where the croquet box had been hidden. Stephen then hears voices, and sees people coming through the tunnel and a vehicle (suggested to be an ambulance) heading towards the Barns. Stephen hides and watches, and realizes that the people are coming not for Stephen, but for the man.
Something has gone horribly wrong, and Stephen can sense it even before he realizes what has happened. At first he fears the men are looking for him, but then it becomes apparent that they’re actually looking for Uncle Peter. In an ironic symmetry, Stephen buries the scarf where the croquet box had been, since by now it is too late for both Uncle Peter and Keith’s mother.
Stephen sees the men searching about with flashlights, and sees a stopped train on the tracks. Part of the train’s cargo is scrap metal from a broken airplane wing. The men then return to the vehicle carried a “load,” and they speak to each other, saying they got “most of him.” One of the men looks at the burden they’re carrying and vomits at the sight. Stephen feels sure that he is responsible for this tragedy—he imagines the man running away from these authority figures, slipping on the train tracks, and being cut to pieces by a train. Finally the ambulance drives off and the stopped train starts up again. Stephen returns home, and thinks “the game’s finally over.”
Although the novel never explicitly gives a reason for Uncle Peter’s death, it is likely that he killed himself because his secrets (his desertion of the Air Force and affair with Keith’s mother) were discovered and he knew he could never return to his family or home again. He had previously mentioned keeping track of the trains going by, and now it’s suggested that he killed himself by lying down on the tracks when he knew a train was coming. This then adds new meaning to the fact that it was the sound of a train that brought back the older Stephen’s memories. This eerie and tragic scene then brings the “game” of spying to a brutal end, as a child’s imagination is transformed into a bleak reality.