Again, the older Stephen states that “everything in the Close is as it was, and everything has changed.” The story is back in the present, and Stephen is revisiting the tunnel and the Lanes. There is a new electric substation where the rusty wire fence used to be. He feels embarrassed to think that he may have come back after all this time to check if the scarf is still there where he had hidden it, but he reminds himself that it could not have survived the decades.
It is the beginning of the end, and the story returns to the present to demonstrate again the effects of time and the inevitable force of change that comes with it. That Stephen returns to the Close perhaps just to find if the scarf is still there suggests that his failure to deliver the scarf to Keith’s mother has haunted him throughout his life, and most likely contributes to a sense of discontentment and disappointment with himself.
Stephen then describes what happened after that night. Life simply went on; he never played with Keith again. He finds out that Uncle Peter has gone missing and Auntie Dee has fallen out with Keith’s mother. Barbara started ignoring Stephen and hanging out with another boy, causing Stephen great pain at the time. Stephen then reveals that there really was a German spy that summer—but that it was him. He admits that he is now “Stefan Weitzler.”
Tragically, Stephen was never able to deliver Uncle Peter’s final message to Keith’s mother, and we simply never learn what happened to Keith’s mother after that. In a kind of parody of traditional spy novels, Stephen waits until now for a big reveal—he was German all along. This was hinted at from the start, but now it’s made explicit.
Stephen explains that he was reborn as “Stephen” when his parents left Germany in 1935. His mother was English, so the whole family became the Wheatleys. He explains that after his parents died, he had felt a longing to leave England, where his life had “never really taken flight” (he had even gotten married and divorced), and to learn more about his father’s life. When Stephen returned to Germany, he had a rough start, learning the language in an unfamiliar environment. He learned that his father’s family had all been killed in the war—his parents and two brothers “taken and murdered” (presumably in the Holocaust) and his sister and her two children killed in an air raid like the ones Uncle Peter had taken part in.
That Stephen never feels a sense of belonging in England can be explained by his German origins and the War’s influence on the British perception of Germany. However, he states that he initially has trouble fitting in Germany as well, as he must relearn the language. The fact that Stephen’s father’s family all were killed in the war is another suggestion that they were Jewish—they were probably murdered in the Holocaust.
Stephen stayed in Germany, and became a professional translator and translated English maintenance manuals. Then he met a German woman, married her, started a family, and melded with the German culture. Now his children are all grown up and tend their mother’s grave every week.
When Stephen marries a German woman, he seems to have finally found a footing in Germany, but he still returns to the Close to recall his childhood in London years later. Thus Frayn suggests that Stefan never truly finds that sense of belonging and closure, no matter where he goes.
Stephen reveals that there were actually two spies in the Close: himself and his father. Stephen’s father was a German spy on the British side, offering economic intelligence and helping decode secret German messages. This explains why his father used strange words (like coodle-moodle and schnick-schnack), which were actually German. Stephen also reveals that he and his family were the “Juice” (the name of the “secret society” Keith at Trewinnick), which is why Friday nights were important for his family. Though Stephen himself eventually returned to Germany, he says that his brother remained “Geoff Wheatley” and stayed English, only speaking German on his deathbed.
It is in the final moments of the novel that the reader will realize that earlier imagined “scenarios” (like that Stephen’s father was a German spy, too) were actually representative of reality. In addition to being Germans in a country hostile to Germany, Stephen finally reveals that the Wheatleys were also Jewish (as the “Juice” was Keith’s mishearing of “Jews”), who observed the Sabbath meal every Friday night. As suggested previously, this would have further contributed to Stephen’s feeling of alienation and lack of belonging in England.
Stephen continues to give accounts of what happened to the rest of the children at the Close and the effects of the war on the neighborhood: notably, Keith became a barrister (lawyer). Stephen finally reveals that the man at the Barns was Uncle Peter, and Stephen wonders when he himself realized that fact, or if he knew it all along. The silk scarf, he now knows, was a map of Germany given to all British airmen in case they became stranded in enemy territory. Stephen also wonders when Peter realized he had married “the wrong sister.”
As Stephen describes the fates of the other children in the Close, he is not only speaking of the effects of time on everyone’s lives, but he is also revealing all the secrets that time has created, hidden, and exposed throughout the years. He finally makes the events of the novel explicit, but by now it’s apparent that their power lies not in the bare facts but in the subtleties of memory, sensory detail, and emotion.
Stephen then thinks about Uncle Peter flying over and bombing Germany, and Stephen’s own aunt being killed in those bombings. Stephen announces that all mysteries have now been resolved, or as resolved as they’ll ever be, and again he thanks his audience for listening and participating. The book ends with Stephen catching another whiff of the privet scent, “even here… even now.”
Frayn ends the novel on a wistful note, as Stephen steps back and looks at the big picture of the war and his own small role within in it, and then finds himself again brought back to the minute details of sensation and perception, as the scent of privet elicits raw emotions and memories that will presumably never leave him.