Stephen has trouble falling asleep. His mind is racing, and he goes to the window to observe the stillness of the Close underneath the light of the full moon (noting that the new moon, when Keith’s mother’s “x” meeting will be, is thus not far away). He feels conflicted, since he has all but promised Keith’s mother to stop spying on her and to not tell Keith about their conversation, but he also feels loyal to Keith and to their own oath of secrecy. Stephen feels burdened by all the secrets he has to hide from Keith, such as Barbara’s intrusion, her gossip about Keith’s mother and Auntie Dee, and his own conversation with Keith’s mother.
Stephen starts to feel the burden of many secrets and conflicting obligations. His life is more complicated when he has individual responsibilities and secrets to keep, instead of just letting Keith tell him what to do, but this is an important part of growing up. Stephen continues to associate the “x” with moon, and particularly the sinister image of a moonless night.
Suddenly, Stephen decides to go to the tunnel at night to check the tin box and prove once and for all that Keith’s mother is a spy. He decides that this will be a “single heroic deed” that he can offer to Keith and that will solve all his problems. Although he becomes completely terrified at the thought of going alone at night, Stephen braves his fear and gets dressed and leaves the house. Everything is still and dark and frightening. Stephen goes through the tunnel, getting germs on his hands from the slime, and finally makes it into the open, through the fence, and to the tin box.
Stephen is more concerned with proving himself to Keith than discovering the truth, but this motivation is enough to send him out after the box at night, despite being completely terrified. Stephen is unaware of his own potential, unlike Keith, who is more talk and less action. Stephen again shows his preoccupation with germs.
Stephen opens the box, and inside feels some clothing. He also feels the presence of another object with ridges and furrows. Then he hears the breathing of man. Stephen freezes, and hears the mysterious man feel his way towards the box and gasp as he sees Stephen. Paralyzed with fear, Stephen doesn’t turn around, and he hears the man running back toward the tunnel. Stephen stays frozen with fear for what seems a long time, and then flees back through the tunnel towards home.
This is the first encounter of the mysterious man and Stephen, and it certainly solidifies the fact that Keith’s mother is indeed involved in some kind of secret or dangerous business. What that is will be revealed later in the story, but for now it adds suspense and real-world consequences to a story that seemed initially to be about a bored child’s whim. Instead, it has become a story of darker secrets and a bleaker reality that is yet to be exposed.
When he returns to the Close, Stephen finds his parents worried and looking for him out in the night with flashlights. It seems Geoff has told on him. Stephen’s parents scold and question him, making sure he hasn’t gotten Keith involved in this as well (and Stephen is again incredulous that people think he could possibly be the leader, not Keith). As Stephen’s mother dries him off and Stephen’s father demands answers, Stephen feels that he has failed Keith because he could not turn around and look at the man. Stephen then finally looks at the “ridged and furrowed” item from the box, which is still clutched in his hand—it’s a blue woolen sock.
The image of the sock is somewhat humorously juxtaposed against the terrors of the dark tunnel and the encounter with the mysterious stranger. As usual Stephen is primarily concerned with what Keith will think of him, and ignores his parents’ concerns.
Time fast-forwards and Keith is examining the sock. Stephen has told him about the man but didn’t say that he had the opportunity to see the man—instead, he says, he hid when he heard the man and the man didn’t see him. Keith is unhappy that Stephen took the sock out of the box, and Stephen feels like a failure.
Keith declares that they have to go check on the box, and though Stephen tries to dissuade him, he confidently tells his mother that they are going out to play. Keith’s mother reminds Stephen to avoid causing any mischief. They go through the tunnel, with Stephen feeling like he is breaking his promise to Keith’s mother. The box is gone. Keith is disappointed, and says that the man must have seen Stephen. Assuming his father’s demeanor, Keith scolds Stephen for being so child-like. Keith goes on to cruelly mock Stephen for his weakness, and Stephen cries in embarrassment.
This episode does not paint Keith in a positive light, unlike the many praises that Stephen pays to his friend. In fact, Keith is extremely insensitive and verbally abusive to his supposed best friend. It also becomes more clear that Keith learns this behavior from his father, as he adopts his father’s mannerisms when he is being especially cold or vicious.
As Stephen starts to head back in shame, he hears footsteps—Keith’s mother is approaching. The two boys hide, with Stephen pressing his face to the ground in fear and again feeling like a coward and failure. Then they realize the footsteps are going up into the Lanes. Stephen notices a grass stain on Keith’s face—he too hid his face in terror. Keith says they should follow his mother, but Stephen refuses to go. Keith won’t go without him, however. Stephen feels grateful to know that Keith needs him—“without me there’s no one for him to be braver than.” Eventually they go together.
Despite his air of superiority, in the face of real danger Keith is just as afraid as Stephen is, hiding his face and failing to go any further past the tunnel without Stephen. The two boys’ relationship seems rather toxic, as Keith constantly bullies Stephen and Stephen worships Keith, and both boys use each other for validation in different ways.
Stephen and Keith walk past the Cottages, where dogs bark and dirty children (who are “plainly laden with germs”) stare at them. Stephen feels like a member of an alien race here, but realizes that these children probably know about “x” and have seen him. Keith walks past with a look of superiority. A man emerges from a cottage and Stephen wonders if it could be x, but then decides it can’t—“because if it is there’s no way in which we can proceed with the matter.” Stephen knows that Keith is thinking this too.
Stephen’s world expands as he ventures into this area beyond the Close, a neighborhood that is clearly much poorer than he’s used to. While Stephen is disturbed, Keith seems able to maintain his usual snobbishness and aloofness. The boys recognize that they wouldn’t know what to do if they actually had to confront “x”—the game would be over.
Eventually the boys make it through and stop at a field filled with collapsed buildings and scrap metal, which is called the “Barns.” An old tramp had been living there the previous winter. The boys start throwing rocks, and Keith accidentally hits an old corrugated iron sheet, which sounds hollow. They investigate and discover that the sheet is the covering to a secret hideout. They believe the tramp is hiding there, so Stephen and Keith start hitting the iron sheet to frighten the tramp and make him come out. They get carried away, striking the iron hard and imagining the man cowering behind it.
The cruel manner in which the boys torture the “old tramp” demonstrates the kind of paranoia and unreasonable behavior that is bred by the war. They are taught to glorify violence and demonize their perceived enemy, so when their emotions erupt like this they get easily carried away, to tragic results.
When the boys stop and hear nothing, they run back to the Close, afraid that the old tramp may have died from fear. At the Haywards’ house they find Keith’s father, dressed in his Home Guard uniform and waiting for Keith’s mother, who is not back from Auntie Dee’s. Keith’s mother then appears with a shopping basket, looking rushed and out of breath. Keith’s father tells her she should have “supper on the table in ten minutes.” As Keith and his father enter their house, Keith’s mother disappointedly asks Stephen: “was it you two?”
The ending of this chapter establishes that Keith’s mother is aware of the “old tramp” in the Barns and is most likely helping the man hide there. Stephen again feels guilty, both for betraying his promise to Keith’s mother and for the violence he found in himself in the Barns. Keith’s father again shows himself to be cold and domineering.