The chapter begins back in the present, when the older Stephen has returned to the Close. He describes how the town had been a newly erected village when he first lived there. It had started outward from the railway and it gradually grew as more and more families settled down. He describes the topography of the unsettled part of town that lay to the right of the Avenue. It first began as an embankment, which led into a tunnel that opened up to the Lanes, a narrow trail that disappeared within lush greenery. Beyond that were the Cottages, a bunch of barking dogs, and an abandoned farm. Past the farm was a no-man’s land, where colonization had ceased at the start of the war. Each time Stephen and Keith ventured there, it was an ordeal “to test [their] coming manhood”—and the first ordeal was the tunnel, with its green slime and the roar of the train passing overhead.
Stephen meticulously describes the topography of his town, a landscape that is specifically shaped by the War, since Stephen mentions that it is completely changed when he returns. Thus, the War not only affects the multiple secrets that are operating in this novel, but it also provides the setting that breeds those secrets. As usual, Stephen and Keith see their adventures beyond the Close in epic terms.
Stephen states that the slime on Keith’s mother’s hands was from the tunnel. She does not go to the Avenue, but instead turns right to the tunnel—and they have no idea what she’s doing there. Stephen and Keith then go to the tunnel to find out why Keith’s mother ventures out there, with Keith taking the lead as usual, even though this discovery came from Stephen. Keith decides that his mother comes here to spy on the trains. Stephen is nervous and wants to turn back, but Keith presses on farther into the tunnel. Following footprints they see in the mud, they emerge from the tunnel, crawl through a hole in a wire fence, and climb onto a parapet. Ahead of them is the train track. Keith speculates that his mother is building a bomb, and is waiting for a certain train with something on it she needs.
This setting—the tunnel, fence, and train tracks—becomes the site of several important events later in the novel. Once again the boys have concrete evidence of something suspicious going on with Keith’s mother, though the idea that she is actually a German spy (or even terrorist, as Keith suggests here) remains unlikely.
Suddenly hearing footsteps approaching, the boys hide behind some undergrowth and see Keith’s mother, going through the hole in the fence and walking back towards the Close with a letter in her hand. After she has left, Stephen tries to head back, but he finds that Keith has discovered something in the undergrowth. It’s a large tin box, about four feet long. The top of the box is inscribed: “Gamages of Holborn. The 'Home Sportsman' No. 4 Garden Croquet Set.” Despite Stephen’s warnings, Keith opens the box. Inside they find a small red package inside containing twenty cork tips (filters) attached to cigarettes, and a scrap of paper with a single “X” written on it.
Although the boys’ story began with Keith’s naïve imagination, it turns out that Keith’s mother really is involved in something secret. Take notice of the past life of the tin box as a container for croquet pieces, which should suggest that the owner of the box participates in a sport that is commonly enjoyed by the upper classes in Britain. The meaning of this particular “X” is never explained in the story, but it adds to the increasingly mysterious meaning of the letter in the boys’ minds.
That night Stephen is haunted by the mystery of the “X”, and he dreams of both his own mother and Keith’s mother. The next day Stephen waits for Keith in the lookout, thinking about Keith’s mother kissing him goodnight—his mind associating the X with the symbol for “kiss”—and how terrifying the tunnel now seems.
“X” is sometimes a symbol for a kiss, so Stephen starts to add this meaning to the mysterious variable. His recurring thoughts of Keith’s mother’s kiss also show his confused feelings regarding her.
Keith never shows up, and instead Stephen is visited by Barbara, who makes fun of the mistake of the “privet” sign. She teases Stephen for not knowing the meaning of “privet”—though he tries to pretend he does, and thinks it’s probably something shameful to do with the bathroom—and asks him if Keith is his “really really best friend.” She asks Stephen why he likes Keith at all, when “everyone except you really hates him.” Stephen tries to ignore these words, but he feels them take root in him like insidious “germs.”
The multiple meanings of “privet”—imagined, misspelled, and actual—emphasize the blurred lines between imagination, perception, and reality in the novel. Note also Barbara’s assertion that all the other neighborhood kids hate Keith—clearly undercutting Stephen’s idealization of his friend—and Stephen’s preoccupation with “germs.”
Barbara keeps trying to talk to Stephen about Keith, and he keeps trying to ignore her. Then Stephen sees Keith’s mother walking empty-handed to Auntie Dee’s house; she immediately comes out with a shopping basket and heads towards the shops. Stephen then remembers seeing croquet hoops rusting in Auntie Dee’s lawn and—connecting this to the empty croquet box—confirms that Auntie Dee must be involved in some way too. Barbara crouches next to Stephen to watch and he can’t help but notice her closeness. Barbara mentions that Keith’s mother is always doing Auntie Dee’s shopping, and that it is strange to be going shopping in the evening. Stephen almost blurts out his secret—“she’s a German spy”—but doesn’t say it (or, as older Stephen corrects himself, he doesn’t think he says it).
Slowly, different clues begin to piece together: Auntie Dee has croquet hoops in her lawn that most likely are from the tin box that Keith and Stephen found in the overgrowth near the tunnel. As such, the story gradually becomes more and more real and involves some kind of secret operation between Keith’s mother and her sister. The older Stephen once again wrestles with his memory even as he tells his story in real time.
Barbara then suggests that they follow Keith’s mother. Barbara speculates that she may be buying items from the black market. Stephen dismisses her guess and is offended to have Keith’s mother’s “high treason” so belittled, but secretly thinks that this theory—that Keith’s mother is sneaking off to put cigarettes in the tin box in exchange for black market groceries—seems all too likely, and his “heart sinks.”
In light of the different speculations about Keith’s mother, Barbara’s hypotheses actually seem the most believable. Stephen even briefly considers them, despite his insistence that he “knows” Keith is right about his mother’s secret spy operations.
Then Barbara wonders if Keith’s mother is taking a message to Auntie Dee’s boyfriend. She explains that Deirdre and Geoff have seen the two kissing in the tunnel, and that Mrs. Hardiment once saw this boyfriend sneaking into Auntie Dee’s house at night and called the police, thinking it was a “Peeping Tom.” Stephen is incredulous at this information, but then thinks of Uncle Peter and feels sure that Barbara is making things up.
Again Barbara’s suspicions about Keith’s mother seem more probable than Keith’s assertion that she’s a German spy, but Stephen remains loyal to Keith’s idea and to his own ideal of Uncle Peter as a glorious hero whose wife could never cheat on him. Ironically, the “boyfriend” probably is Uncle Peter, as it’s later revealed that he has deserted the RAF and is hiding near the Close.
Barbara, her face very close to Stephen’s, states that many mothers have boyfriends while their husbands are at war. Then Barbara’s mother calls for her to come home. As she crawls out, Barbara whispers that even her mother has a boyfriend. Barbara then tells Stephen that her best friend is Rosemary, but that he could be her next-best friend. Stephen feels shameful for having let Barbara invade the lookout, for listening to her silly chatter, and for having entertained a “momentary suspicion that [Keith’s mother is] not a German spy at all.” He sees Keith’s mother returning to Auntie Dee’s house and handing her a full shopping basket—even though it’s evening and all the shops are closed.
Barbara’s casual comments about the prevalence of secret boyfriends show how wartime makes and breaks bonds in secret ways. Notice also that Barbara is beginning to show an attraction towards Stephen. Stephen is having experiences and ideas apart from Keith, and he feels guilty for that. Meanwhile Keith’s mother continues her mysterious activities.
The following day, Stephen is in the lookout alone when Keith’s mother, who is feeding the pigs, speaks to him from outside the bushes. She says he seems to be looking for someone, and asks if it’s her. Overwhelmed, Stephen can only say no. She then leaves but looks back, and Stephen is confused how she knows that he’s watching her “when it’s supposed to be secret.” Keith’s mother goes into the house and then comes out with a plate, and asks Stephen if she can join him the hideout. She has to crawl awkwardly to enter the privet, and Stephen is terrified to be so close to her.
Once again the real world clashes with Stephen and Keith’s imagined reality. Stephen assumes that the lookout is impenetrable and secret, but here it’s made clear that other people can see the boys spying. Reality doesn’t act as it’s “supposed” to.
Keith’s mother gives Stephen two chocolate biscuits and apologizes that Keith cannot play today. She comments on the “privet” sign and looks through their “logbook—secrit”, laughing when she realizes that both are misspelled (and recognizing that it’s “Keith’s handiwork”). Meanwhile, Stephen fails to utter any words. Keith’s mother asks Stephen if they’ve seen anything suspicious, and says that their spying could get out of hand and insult the neighbors—particularly, she says, if they were to actually follow someone around. Stephen then realizes that “she’s seen us.”
Stephen believes so fervently in the idea that Keith’s mother is a German spy that he is legitimately afraid to be so close to her and to learn that she knows of their spying activities. Keith’s mother knows her son’s tendency to misspell words, and her confusion about the “privet” sign underscores the layers of meaning in the word.
Keith’s mother tells Stephen that she’s glad that Keith has found a friend in him, since “he doesn’t make friends easily,” but “Keith’s easily led, as I’m sure you realize.” Stephen is astonished at this, since Keith is always the leader in all their activities. Keith’s mother then informs Stephen that she will not let Keith play with him anymore if they don’t stop spying. She says that sometimes “people have things they want to do in private,” even innocent things, and it’s not right for the boys to be spying on them. She then asks him to keep this conversation secret and invites him to tea the next afternoon. Keith’s mother then says “thank you for having me” and returns to her house, only to come back out with a shopping basket. Stephen does not follow her.
Once again it’s revealed that Stephen is relatively unique in his view of Keith—even Keith’s own parents can see that Keith doesn’t get along well with other children, and isn’t the heroic leader that Stephen perceives him to be. Keith’s mother essentially acknowledges that she has a secret, confirming Stephen’s fears. The problem is she doesn’t realize just how dramatic Stephen and Keith’s suspicions of her are.