Resuming the narrative in the flashback, the young Stephen does not say anything at all in response to Keith’s claim, but just stands with his mouth slightly open. He thinks to himself that he is surprised, as he often is at Keith’s announcements. He is as surprised as he was when Keith had told him that Mr. Gort from No. 11 was a murderer, whose victims’ bones they found in his waste ground.
Despite the ridiculous claim that Keith’s mother is a spy, Stephen does not for one second think to question his friend, which clearly shows how much control Keith holds over Stephen, even in his wildest imaginings. It also speaks to the danger of unquestioned authority.
The young Stephen also immediately feels excited because of the new possibilities of engaging in spy-like activities. Then he feels a wave of jealousy because of Keith’s fortune in having parents who are interesting. The older Stephen states that his younger self was not curious about whether Keith’s father knew about Keith’s mother’s secret. Instead, he felt regretful for having received such kindness from Keith’s mother.
The childish exhilaration that Stephen expresses at the state of their new project demonstrates how he does not yet understand the potential consequences of their little game. Stephen continues to refrain from questioning Keith about his mother’s secret. Class difference is manifested beyond wealth, as an evaluative criterion of people.
Stephen would rather have Mrs. Sheldon or Mrs. Stott be a German spy. He even considers Keith’s father being a spy, but quickly changes his mind since he would be too afraid to spy on the intimidating Mr. Hayward. He does not consider asking Keith how he knows his mother is a spy; instead, he simply accepts that she is who she is. Once he takes Keith’s word as true, Stephen starts to think that it explains why Keith’s mother sends so many letters. He also believes that it explains why, of all houses, Miss Durrant’s house was bombed. If she had figured out Keith’s mother’s secret, Keith’s mother could have easily signaled to the Germans to target Miss Durrant. Furthermore, Stephen thinks that it explains why Keith’s mother was so nice to him, offering all that lemon barley and chocolate spread—it’s just part of her “false identity.”
Keith’s father’s intimidation of Stephen stems from not only his higher social class, but also his experience in the Great War (WWI). Once Stephen sets his mind on Keith’s mother’s espionage, he fits everything within that mold and suddenly imagination transforms into the reality that Stephen believes is “real.” This is a somewhat comic portrait of a child’s imagination run wild, but it also becomes clear that these imaginings will have real-world effects on people besides just Stephen and Keith. The second mention of Miss Durrant’s house is another somber reminder of the constant threat of war and violence.
Stephen and Keith begin spying on Keith’s mother as she takes care of errands and household duties. They create a notebook for observations, which Keith labels “Logbook—Secrit.” Stephen does not correct him. Keith then takes meticulous (yet frequently misspelled) notes on his mother’s actions. Stephen observes how Keith’s mother “does it all in such a smooth, unhurried way” and how fake she seems now that they know her secret. He then begins questioning everything that Keith’s mother does and everyone she interacts with, such as Mr. Hucknall, the butcher, who Stephen thinks may also be a German spy, too. “Everything [they’d] once taken for granted now seems open to question.”
Even though Keith misspells “secret” and many other words, Stephen does not correct him, solely because he does not want to upset Keith, further showing the depths of his own insecurity and servility toward his friend (and he even still considers Keith smarter or better educated than himself, despite multiple instances like this). Stephen is learning about human nature as he observes Keith’s mother, and Frayn is simultaneously showing how deeply imagination can affect perception.
Stephen runs home for lunch, thinking about their plans to investigate the sitting room while Keith’s mother is resting in her bedroom. As Stephen gulps down his lunch, Stephen’s mother prods him about not burdening Keith’s mother by going over there too often. But Stephen is so immersed in his own thoughts that he ignores her questions and bolts out of the house. Since he is sure Keith’s father has not finished his lunch yet, Stephen hopes to pass the time with the other neighborhood kids. He wants to tell the other kids the secret, but decides to instead enjoy knowing something they don’t.
This instance displays one of the appeals of secrecy: it can offer a sense of self-importance to the one with secret knowledge. Throughout most of the book Stephen is not confident about himself, yet when he is first gifted with “secret” information about Keith’s mother, he feels empowered even against his bullies at school because of his new knowledge.
The Close is empty, since everyone is still having lunch, and Stephen thinks about how unfortunate it will be when Keith’s mother is exposed. When he hears Keith’s father whistling outside the house, Stephen knows that the coast is clear for him to go inside. Keith is waiting for him there, and when his mother goes to take a rest the boys creep downstairs, feeling very mysterious and important, to examine her blotter (a piece of paper used to blot excess ink when writing). As Keith observes the blotter, Stephen looks at a photograph of a young Keith’s mother and Auntie Dee holding hands. Stephen looks at the blotter himself, but can only make out a few numbers and letters. “Code,” Keith whispers. Then they look through Keith’s mother’s drawer and skim through her address book. While Keith is taking notes in their logbook, Stephen looks at the pictures on her desk, which depict the four adults in Keith’s life: his parents, Auntie Dee, and Uncle Peter.
The placement and content of the photographs are telling because they visually depict the familial network of the Haywards and Auntie Dee’s family. Keith’s mother and Auntie Dee seem to have a close sisterly relationship, a picture of which is juxtaposed against the Haywards’ marriage and that of Auntie Dee and Uncle Peter’s. What should be noticed is the fact that these pictures are displayed on Keith’s mother’s desk, and Auntie Dee and Uncle Peter are faithfully represented as much as Keith’s mother and her husband are. The boys look for secrets on the blotter (where the imprint of any written words might remain) in a semi-parody of other spy novels.
In the meantime, Keith discovers a diary in the back of the drawer. At first, it seems to contain only entries of specific occasions, like Milly’s birthday. Then they find a Friday in January that is empty except for a tiny “x” mark. Although Stephen starts to feel nervous and tries to put the diary back, Keith continues to look through it and orders Stephen to write down their finding in the logbook.
The finding of the “x” mark signals a major turning point in the story, as it provides physical “evidence” of something suspicious about Keith’s mother, and a mysterious variable that the boys can assign limitless meaning to.
Next Keith finds an exclamation point on a Saturday in February. As the two continue skimming, they notice a pattern with more x’s—they occur once monthly, and sometimes are crossed out and re-written a day or two earlier or later. There are only three exclamation points throughout the year, one of them on a date marked “wedding anniv.” Stephen feels overwhelmed by this discovery, and starts to hypothesize that the x’s symbolize a monthly meeting. Keith notices that the x’s occur with each new moon, a fact that seems horrifying to Stephen.
At this point the reader likely realizes that the x’s probably mark Keith’s mother’s menstrual cycle, and the exclamation points probably mark the occasions she has sex with Keith’s father (notably, only three times in a year). This is humorous in light of the boys’ horrified suspicions, and develops a thick layer of dramatic irony in the story—a disconnect between what the characters realize and what the reader knows to be true. The image of a secret meeting on a moonless night will also become an especially potent one for Stephen.
When the clocks in the house start chiming, the boys rush out of the room and run into Keith’s mother. She seems suspicious but also curious about what they’re doing. She tells them to go play outside, and the older Stephen reflects that this was another turning point in his story.
At first Keith’s mother is mostly just amused by the boys’ spying games. Notably, it is her command to go play outside that marks the turning point for Stephen, as this provides the boys with an opportunity to discuss what they’ve seen and let their imaginations run wild.
Stephen and Keith go to their secret hiding spot in the privet shrubs at Braemar (Miss Durrant’s house) while Stephen waits for Keith’s next instructions. Stephen notes how he feels more honored than ever to play the part of the “loyal squire and swordbearer” in the epic “story” of the Haywards. Stephen sees Keith’s father and mother as being locked in a battle between good and evil, and Keith himself as both protagonist and creator of this story.
Again Frayn stresses the elusiveness of the distinction between imagination and reality through Stephen’s comment of being part of the “story” of Keith’s own epic-like life, when he really is indeed just a fictional character of Frayn’s novel. It’s also notable that the insecure Stephen recognizes Keith’s role as “creator”—the inventor of their various projects—while also accepting him as the “protagonist,” and himself as the loyal sidekick.
Stephen makes some suggestions of what to do next—like telling Keith’s father, or the police, or writing a letter to their neighbor Mr. McAfee, but Keith ignores those ideas. Keith then takes out a black tin trunk that the boys have hidden in the bushes. The trunk, like the items in it, came from the rubble of Miss Durrant’s bombed house. From the trunk Keith then takes the boys’ most secret and prized possession: “the bayonet with which his father killed the five Germans.” Stephen then clarifies this—it’s not actually the bayonet itself, but rather a carving knife they found in the ruins of Braemar. But Keith sharpened the blade so that it looks like a bayonet, and in its “inward nature…it possesses the identity” of his father’s bayonet.
Several important items are revealed in this passage, most notably the tin box and the “bayonet.” It is significant that both boys idolize Keith’s father’s violent achievements in World War I to the point that they essentially will his famous weapon into reality. Also note that Stephen suggests telling authority figures about what they’ve discovered, but both boys reject this possibility and decide to shoulder the “burden” of their secrets themselves, rather than tattling to others.
Keith holds out the bayonet/knife to Stephen, who places his hand on it, and Keith makes Stephen swear not to reveal anything to anyone except as “allowed” by Keith himself—under pain of having his throat cut. They then make further plans to spy on Keith’s mother as often as possible, and to use the privet lookout as their headquarters. When Stephen asks what they’re going to do on the night of her next secret meeting, Keith only picks up the bayonet and looks grimly at Stephen, who is horrified but also awed. Keith then takes a white tile out of the box, labels it “Privet” (a misspelling of “Private”), and places it at the entrance to the hideout.
Keith is in charge, as usual, and it’s only Stephen who has to swear himself to secrecy, under threat of violence. This danger is made all the more real by the presence of the “bayonet” under Stephen’s hand and Keith’s silent threat against his own mother, giving this childish ritual more sinister undertones. This is then followed by the humorous irony of Keith misspelling “private” as “privet,” and inadvertently describing the actual bushes he is labeling.