The older Stephen is seeing his memory unfold in front of him, as his younger self sits in the lookout with Keith’s mother. She seems even more “perfect” than she was before, because she has more make-up on and a scarf around her neck. Only now does Stephen realize how desperate she must have been to be asking a child like him for help. He tries to piece out the way she broached the subject of asking Stephen to deliver a shopping basket to the man. He wonders if she ever explained to him why she couldn’t ask Keith, but Stephen knew there was something “unthinkable” about it. Stephen remembers that his younger self had been sure that the man was a German, regardless of his complete identity.
Although Stephen does not yet know all the details of Keith’s mother’s secret, she is now desperate enough to confide in him and ask him for help. The way Stephen describes Keith’s mother suggests again that he may be attracted to her in a confused way. It is also worth noting that Keith’s mother chooses to trust Stephen and not her own son, who seems to have inherited many of his father’s worst tendencies. Notice also that Stephen again associates Germanness with a set of negative qualities, rather than a particular nationality.
Keith’s mother explains that the man (who she only refers to as “he”) does not have a ration book and is really sick. She pleads with Stephen to deliver the basket, but in his mind he’s caught up in the thought that the man is a German, making all this indefensible. Stephen finally suggests that Auntie Dee could deliver the basket, but then Keith’s mother starts to cry and he realizes that though Auntie Dee had been helping Keith’s mother before, she won’t anymore—because, Stephen thinks, Auntie Dee was the one who first found the German airman and “took him to her bosom,” but then, because Stephen made the croquet box be taken away, Keith’s mother had to deliver the messages and supplies in person, and so she became the man’s lover instead.
Stephen is now pulled into the adult world and asked to play a part in the dangerous mission of Keith’s mother’s rendezvous with the man hiding in the Barns. With this he is initiated into the protection of a secret that is graver than the made-up secret he and Keith had originally believed. Stephen is now close to figuring out the identity of the man in the Barns, but he is still too caught up in the idea of his German-ness to realize the truth.
Keith’s mother cries harder, and Stephen feels awful. Stephen thinks that he has turned Keith’s mother and father against each other, and Keith’s mother and Auntie Dee against each other. Feeling that he’s “ruined everything”, he apologizes. Then he sees Keith’s father come from the backyard and start looking around for his wife. As Keith’s mother tidies herself up to go back to the house, she tells Stephen that he doesn’t have to worry about the basket—she’ll “think of some other way to do it.”
Keith’s mother is now truly a tragic figure, broken by external circumstances, her own actions, and the brutal man she is married to. She has become completely vulnerable in front of Stephen, and this situation becomes another painful step in his growing maturity.
Keith’s mother keeps speaking, mostly to herself, about how cruel life can be sometimes, and how much things have changed from how they once were. She looks at Stephen with a “wan smile” and Stephen feels as if he is leaving his child’s world, which contains its own terrors, and entering a newer, adult world with even darker secrets. Keith’s mother says she has to go, and tries to take the basket with her, but Stephen stops her and takes the basket out of her hand. Keith’s mother is surprised and grateful, and she kisses Stephen on the forehead.
Stephen makes a brave and mature decision here, and he feels the accompanying emotion of taking a dizzying step into the unknown. His feeling of leaving a child’s world and entering an adult’s is an important moment in the book and in his personal development. He is learning more about himself, about people in general, and about the nature of secrets.
After Keith’s mother leaves, Barbara comes into the lookout, asking what Keith’s mother had said. Stephen tries not to reveal anything, and in turn, Barbara starts mocking him, but also expressing subtle jealousy at Stephen’s silence. Stephen is upset by Barbara’s attitude and feels miserable. Barbara accuses Stephen of possibly being Keith’s mother’s boyfriend, and Stephen finally cries out that he thought Barbara wanted to be friends. Barbara then smiles and starts acting nicer again. She takes out a cigarette from her purse, which they light together and start to smoke.
This is the first moment when Stephen reaches out to Barbara, who usually is the one visiting him and telling him things that he hasn’t asked about. It’s clear that after their last encounter he had developed expectations of how their new “friendship” would go, and Barbara herself seems confused about how to act around Stephen—a reminder that she too is likely going through her own coming-of-age struggles.
As they are smoking, Barbara looks through the basket, which contains eggs, bacon, potatoes, carrots, Spam, corned beef, and medicine for a fever. Barbara then finds a sealed envelope, which she tries to open. Stephen takes it out of her hands, and Barbara leans forward and kisses him. Stephen can’t help thinking about the germs from her mouth, and he suddenly thinks “I’ve found a value for x.” Barbara then sits on top of Stephen and reaches for the bayonet. She uses it to slit the letter open, despite Stephen’s desperate protests.
The fever medicine in the basket confirms that the mysterious man is sick. Frayn then portrays an important step in Stephen’s abandonment of young naivety—like his earlier dismissal of Barbara as girly and intolerable—and makes it official with his first kiss. The kiss brings together several of the important symbols of the novel: the “x,” “germs,” and the bayonet, which Barbara grabs in Stephen’s post-kiss confusion. She has none of the qualms about keeping secrets that Stephen does. The fact that the bayonet is used to slit open the letter suggests the violence associated with revealing secrets, especially secrets having to do with the war.
At that moment Keith’s father approaches the lookout and asks Stephen to have a word with him. Barbara hurriedly puts the items back in the basket, and whispers to Stephen that he mustn’t let Keith’s father have it. Keith’s father tells Stephen to bring the basket with him, and they walk to the garage. Stephen notes that Mr. Hayward is finally addressing him directly, calling him “old chap” as if he were Keith. Stephen steels himself and resolves to not hand over the basket.
This begins a tense and frightening scene for Stephen, as Keith’s father seems to have entirely caught on to his wife’s activities and is now turning on Stephen, as her “accomplice.” Once again Keith’s father’s casual, even affectionate language is merely a cover for his coldness and brutality.
In the garage, Keith’s father goes to his workbench and tells Stephen to stop playing silly games. Stephen notes that this conversation must be difficult for Keith’s father to have as well, and Stephen realizes that adults are not all that different from himself. Keith’s father then says “game over” and asks him to hand over the basket. Stephen initially refuses, shocking Keith’s father, who cannot do anything but keep asking. Stephen states that deciding not to hand over the basket is the bravest thing he has done in his entire life. But when Keith’s father finally says “please” in a pleading voice, Stephen gives in and hands over the basket. He feels awful, and says that this is “the weakest and most cowardly thing” he’s done in life.
Stephen’s observation that adults are not so different from himself shows that he has begun a new stage of his life, gradually discarding his former childish viewpoints and behavior, while also realizing that adults can be just as petty, immature, and cruel as children. Unfortunately, Stephen is unable to stand up for himself in front of Keith’s father for long, quickly descending from displaying the most courage of his life to betraying that bravery and handing over the basket to Mr. Hayward. This resembles a kind of military loss, and surely means tragedy for Keith’s mother’s future.
Keith’s mother suddenly comes into the garage and finds the two. She sees the basket, which has clearly been rummaged through, and tries to take it, but Keith’s father moves it out of her grasp. There is a long and terrifying silence, and finally she tells Stephen to go find Keith and “cheer him up.” Stephen runs out and finds Keith, who is struggling with his math homework. Neither boy says anything. Stephen then runs into the street, where Barbara tries to question him, but he keeps running all the way to his “Mummy.”
This is a tragic and dramatic moment, as Keith’s mother essentially sees her fate sealed and yet must keep up her cheerful exterior and appearance of normality. Even worse, from her perspective it looks like Stephen purposefully betrayed her, going through the basket and then bringing it to Keith’s father. This is then very traumatizing for Stephen, who finally turns to his own family in his moment of desperation.
Stephen cries uncontrollably as his parents try to comfort him. They ask him what’s wrong, but he won’t tell them. Stephen’s father suggests that his troubles might seem not so bad in the morning. Stephen goes to bed but has trouble falling asleep, and he notices that the new moon will be the following night. Stephen thinks about the man dying in the hole in the Barns, and feels guilty and unhappy. Finally he gets up and goes to sleep between his parents, like he used to when he was younger, but this doesn’t comfort him and he feels claustrophobic. His parents wake up to find Stephen crying next to them, but he still won’t explain what’s wrong.
Stephen feels guilty and conflicted about many things, as the childish game he and Keith began has turned into a real-world tragedy. In his low moment here Stephen tries to return to the comforts of childhood—like sleeping with his parents—but finds that he cannot go back to that world. His step into adulthood is not just about young love and new secrets, but also means the loss of a particular kind of comforting sureness about the world.
When the morning comes, Stephen finds that none of his problems are gone, but he does realize what he needs to do—he needs to go find the man and bring him some food and medicine. Stephen then spends his whole day at school lost in thought. When he comes home, he gathers food from the pantry (his parents’ emergency rations) and pills from the medicine cabinet, and makes a makeshift package for the man. Stephen then goes to the Barns by himself to deliver it.
Stephen is at least responsible enough to make up for his previous show of fear and defeat, and makes a mature and brave decision here in compiling a package to deliver to the man in the Barns. In this way, Stephen is depicted as a genuinely compassionate and humane person, who decides to keep his promise to Keith’s mother and deliver food to a man he still believes is an enemy.
Stephen again passes through the Cottages, with their barking dogs and dirty children. The dogs lunge at him and a child throws a stone at him, but he makes it through. He then reaches the Barns, and hears the man coughing under the sheet of corrugated iron. Stephen imagines Keith’s mother coming here, leaving her world of “silver ornaments and silver chimes” and descending into this “underworld.” Finally Stephen leaves the things at the top step of the man’s hiding place. He turns to go, but then the man calls out his name: “Stephen?”
Stephen seems to be facing all his childhood fears directly on this journey, as the dogs and children of the Cottages are actively antagonistic to him, yet he presses on. The fact that the man knows Stephen’s name, then, is a new surprise (and a kind of “cliffhanger” to end the chapter), as this implies that the man isn’t German at all, and in fact is someone Stephen knows.