Stephen is daydreaming of spying on Keith’s mother when his teacher asks him a question and impatiently waits for him to answer. At lunch, he is teased by his classmates, who take him by the ears and rock him back and forth, but the idea of having secret information helps Stephen feel powerful regardless. After school, Stephen runs straight to the lookout to start spying on the Haywards’ house. Keith joins him briefly before they both need to go home for tea, homework, supper, and then bed.
His imaginings of Keith’s mother actually influence Stephen’s life: they disrupt his daily routine and keep him constantly distracted from his schoolwork. Frayn again depicts how imagination can have a very real effect on reality. Stephen also mentions once more how secrecy makes him feel powerful.
Although Stephen is constantly fidgeting, eager to go back to the lookout, Stephen’s mother and Geoff —who mocks Keith’s wild imaginings—prevent him from going out, especially since it is a Friday night and Stephen’s father is home. Stephen notes that there’s an unspoken rule in his family that they stay in on Fridays. Stephen’s father, who has been napping in his armchair, wakes up and asks Stephen to talk to him.
Geoff’s remarks suggest how other people might see Keith—it seems that only Stephen looks at him with such hero-worship. The special nature of Friday nights for the Wheatleys hints at their Jewishness, though Stephen himself doesn’t know this yet. Friday night is usually when the first meal of Shabbat is eaten.
Stephen’s father asks Stephen what he did at school, but instead of mentioning the teasing, Stephen says that he was “revising” in various school subjects. Then Stephen’s father asks him to solve the equation 7x^2 = 63, but Stephen is distracted by the moon outside, thinking of Keith’s mother’s “x” marking the new moon for her own sinister purposes. Stephen then claims that he has not yet learned that kind of math, so his father continues asking him other questions, though Stephen is impatient and distracted by thoughts of Keith’s mother.
Although Stephen is clearly annoyed by his father’s questioning, the reader should take note of how different Stephen’s father is from Keith’s father. Mr. Wheatley is obviously caring and takes an interest in Stephen’s life, while Keith’s father rarely shares a conversation with Keith. Instead, he only gives him chores to do or canes him when Keith does something wrong. Here Stephen also starts to associate the mysterious “x” with the sinister qualities of a moonless night—an image that will influence him for the rest of the narrative.
Stephen’s father then asks if Stephen is getting along better with the other boys—if they’re not calling him names anymore. The older Stephen explains that this question came because he had once asked his parents what a “sheeny” was. At the time Stephen’s father had looked at him searchingly—“the way he did when I told him about the Juice at Trewinnick”—and finally told Stephen to try and forget about it, but to tell him if anyone said something like that again.
“Sheeny” is an anti-Semitic slur, providing a more obvious hint that Stephen’s family is Jewish (and its connection to the “Juice” here makes that mishearing of Keith’s more clear as well). Yet Stephen’s father doesn’t tell him the truth—presumably to protect from more bullying.
Stephen’s father follows up with more questions about Stephen’s best friends and favorite teacher. Meanwhile, Stephen wonders to himself why his family isn’t like the Haywards. He thinks that there’s “something sad” about the Wheatleys’ life, but he can’t quite define it. He mentions that sometimes he’ll come home to find some “melancholy stranger” waiting to talk in secret with his father.
Stephen’s short-sighted comparison of his family to the Haywards seems to be restricted to classist criteria. He is unable to see the compassion that his father shows him (and Keith’s father’s corresponding lack of compassion), and instead can only complain about the differences between the Wheatleys and the Haywards. The “melancholy stranger” offers another vague hint that all is not as it seems at the Wheatley house, though Stephen discounts these mysteries simply because they belong to his family and not Keith’s.
Close to bedtime, Stephen finds a chance to escape to the lookout, where he runs into Keith’s mother. Both are startled. Assuming Stephen was headed towards her house and son, she sends him back home. The older Stephen then looks back and explains that Keith’s mother seemed lost in her own thoughts during this encounter, and it was also the first time she had addressed Stephen directly.
Keith’s mother’s appearance outside at night and her first direct address to Stephen signals a change in the story, and hints that there may be something suspicious about her after all.
Stephen and Keith’s serious spying begins the following Saturday. Most of their watch consists of unfruitful observations; the morning’s most interesting event is the milk delivery. Soon after, Norman Stott from No. 13 passes by with a shovel and bucket. Then they see Mrs. McAfee from No. 8 going to No. 13, talking with Mrs. Stott, and handing her a pair of secateurs (pruning shears). They note the trains passing three times an hour, and observe the Stotts’ dog chasing the Hardiments’ cat up the street. The dog seems to show interest in the two boys, potentially revealing their hiding spot, but finally it wanders away. They also take note of Mr. Gort, who stands outside briefly and then goes back into his house, and a mysterious hand that opens the curtains at the Trewinnick house.
The uninteresting observations made by Stephen and Keith speak to the ridiculousness of their game of spying on Keith’s mother. All they observe is the banality of daily life in the Close, try as they might to add a layer of intrigue and suspense to that life. In fact, the very detailed notes of the goings-on in the neighborhood emphasize their childish naiveté, while also providing an interesting portrait of suburban life in wartime London—seemingly mundane and ordinary, but also vaguely sinister and off-putting.
Stephen starts to feel bored and tired of listening to Keith order him around. Stephen playfully says that Stephen’s father, too, is a German spy, declaring that his father does have secret meetings with people at their house, and they speak in a foreign language. Stephen decides that if Keith’s mother can be a spy, then so can his father. Feeling frustrated, he thinks that Keith’s mother’s “stupid” x-marks in her diary probably don’t mean anything at all.
Tired of waiting for a “lead” in their investigation, Stephen sarcastically throws out the claim that his father is a German spy, too. This is ironic, considering that Stephen will later reveal that his father actually is a German spy—but a German working for the British side. Stephen even briefly loses interest in the unknown “x” variable and all that it could possibly represent.
Stephen is just about to leave when they suddenly see Keith’s mother leaving the house to go to Auntie Dee’s. At that moment, Stephen begins to realize the “oddity of the whole relationship” between the two. While Stephen’s mother rarely visits her sisters, Keith’s mother goes to visit Auntie Dee every day. He imagines the two sharing secrets about Uncle Peter and his involvement in the war, and Keith’s mother passing these secrets on to Germany, with disastrous consequences. Then he wonders if Auntie Dee could also be a spy, and imagines Uncle Peter coming home to his abandoned daughter and his wife exposed as a spy.
Once again Stephen loses himself in his imagination at the sight of Keith’s mother. Also note that Stephen references his own aunts here, but gives them very little attention—he is primarily concerned with Keith’s family instead of his own. Uncle Peter comes to more concretely represent a child’s idea of British heroism in the war, and so in Stephen’s fantasy he is a tragic, innocent figure betrayed by his wife and sister-in-law.
Keith’s mother leaves Auntie Dee’s house to go shopping for her. Keith runs after his mother to follow her, but they lose her after she turns a corner at the end of the Close—“she’s vanished.” Stephen then describes the town’s spatial arrangement. The end of the Close forks into the Avenue to the left. To the right, the street turns into a rough track that leads to an unused tunnel that the trains rumble over. Stephen and Keith attempt to look for Keith’s mother, but she is nowhere to be found. They start guessing where she could have gone, but then simply find her leaving Auntie Dee’s house again. Keith’s mother sees the boys and comes up to them, asking them what they have been doing all morning. Baffled, they don’t answer her questions.
The descriptive illustration of the Close and the other parts of the town is so realistic that many of Frayn’s readers have said it reminds them of their own childhood towns in London during WWII. Thus Frayn’s novel does a good job of representing reality as a piece of realist fiction. Frayn is also skilled at inviting the reader to step into the shoes of young Stephen and experience that there really is something “wrong” about Keith’s mother and her apparent ability to travel between two places more quickly than is natural.
In the following days, Stephen and Keith try to find the secret passageway taken by Keith’s mother, as they keep watch in the lookout. They look under a manhole cover and underneath a loose board in the Hardiments’ garden, but find both unlikely to be a secret passageway. Meanwhile, the older Stephen tries to remember the events as they happened in the correct order, but he is confused about whether a certain policeman came before the story began or if he had come again later. The older Stephen describes consequent images of Uncle Peter returning home, surrounded by the neighborhood kids who are in awe of the military decorations on his uniform. He is not sure whether this is an actual memory or a product of his imagination. Stephen then briefly brings up an older memory of standing behind his father at night, with soldiers running in the streets.
Again Stephen expresses difficulty in trying to figure out the chronology of specific events, but this particular part of the story is unique because he is not sure whether a certain vision of Uncle Peter is a part of his memory or is a potential product of his imagination. Both of them seem equally vivid and real, so much that it is easy to confuse them (though in light of later events, it’s obvious that his memory of Uncle Peter returning home in glory is a false one). As such, Frayn introduces another potential obstacle to the idea of memory as a wholly accurate medium: the disturbance of imagined visions. What is also striking is that imagination can be as detailed and concrete as a memory, or even as present, lived reality.
Back in the flashback, Stephen is at the lookout alone and tries to follow Keith’s mother to the Avenue, but the same thing happens again and he finds her at Auntie Dee’s immediately. Somehow she’s delivered a letter and returned to Auntie Dee’s without Stephen being able to find her. He feels shaken, and wonders perhaps if this is a ghost story, instead of a spy one. The next time, Stephen is with Keith and they follow closely behind Keith’s mother, only twenty steps behind, and keep her in their sight. But she goes on walking normally down the street, past the pig bins and to the shops. They follow her again a few more times when she is delivering letters and going shopping with Auntie Dee and Milly, but they don’t observe anything suspicious. The boys start to grow restless.
The mysterious whereabouts of Keith’s mother and her strange disappearances and reappearances establish a kind of suspense that prompts Stephen to briefly consider re-classifying the story into a ghost one. Again, he is extremely aware of the fictionality of his reality, and his attempt to categorize his own life as a type of story speaks to Frayn’s frequent exploration of the difference between imagination and reality.
One day, Barbara Berrill comes up to Stephen and Keith while they are in their lookout, and asks them what they are doing. She tries to expose their secret, and as she’s leaving she yells down the street that they are spying. The exchange makes the boys feel immature and embarrassed, but they stay in the lookout.
Whenever they are faced with the real world or other people’s perspectives, the boys’ spying fantasies seem immature, but within the dynamic of their friendship the game is deadly serious. Here Barbara starts to take an interest in the boys’ activities—her appearances at the lookout will grow more frequent as the book progresses.
As it is getting darker, the boys find Keith’s mother going to Auntie Dee’s house again and coming out to turn around the corner. They follow her, but lose her again. They then expect to see her come out of Auntie Dee’s, but instead find her coming out of the Haywards’ house. Keith’s mother scolds Keith for being out so long, and the two enter their home. As they are going inside, Stephen notices that Keith’s mother is brushing her hair and slapping her shoulders, as if trying to rid them of something. Finally, she wipes her hand of something that Stephen believes is slimy—and he realizes where she’s been disappearing to.
After a series of fruitless spying endeavours, the story finally offers a new development with the slime that Stephen notices on Keith’s mother’s hands. At this point, Keith’s initial claim that his mother is a German spy seems partially validated, as it’s at least established that there is something suspicious about her. The boys’ intuitions proved to be reasonable, and to a certain degree their imagination has now become a reality.