Ewe’s Stockings – runner up in the Elizabeth Goudge award!

In a mad moment, I entered this year’s Romantic Novelists’ Association Elizabeth Goudge award. You had to write a story of no more than 2000 words, based on a prompt: in this case “The woman who sat in the corner of the railway carriage with her eyes shut was attracting a good deal of attention.”
My story, “Ewe’s Stockings”, came equal second!
Here it is…
 

Ewe’s stockings

The woman who sat in the corner of the railway carriage with her eyes shut was attracting a good deal of attention. And envy.

The attention had been coming from the well-dressed man of business in the opposite corner, who’d earlier looked like he couldn’t resist appreciating the olive tweed coat and skirt Harriet wore, the well-shod feet, the elegantly curved legs on display. The envy was strictly confined to the two women who occupied the two seats facing him.

“How did she get those stockings?” One hissed. “Pre-war quality.”

Her friend whispered, “Courtesy of our friends from the land of the free, I’d guess. Ashchurch is awash with them.”

The woman in the corner, eyes still closed, suppressed a grin. No, the stockings hadn’t been a present for services rendered, although admittedly they’d not been obtained through the usual channels. Part of the uniform. Part of the disguise. Let them be admired as much as the legs they sheathed.

The door from the corridor opened. “There you are, Harriet. Oh, sorry, did I wake you?”

The owner of the cool, deep voice was worth opening one’s eyes for. He might not have been expected to gain the admiration of the businessman—except in the matter of his immaculate suit—but he’d no doubt raise the female envy levels. Clive’s flashing dark eyes and cut-glass cheekbones couldn’t fail to impress. He raised his hat gallantly to the other occupants of the compartment, then took the seat next to Harriet’s.

“I wasn’t asleep. Just resting my eyes. What have you been up to, Clive?”

“Going up and down the blithering corridor, looking for you.” He twirled his hat in his hands in an adorably carefree way, hiding formidable brains behind the Bertie Wooster-esque facade.

“You were supposed to be getting on at Cleeve and we stopped there ages ago. Is the corridor that long?” Harriet gave him a grin.

“No, but Arthur Fanshawe’s long-winded. I’d no sooner stepped onto the train than I happened across him and he wouldn’t let me escape without a full briefing on the doings of his family, unto the least of his brethren. The good Lord preserve us from old schoolmates.”

“I couldn’t agree more. Did I tell you about running into Millie Morstead in Cheltenham?” Harriet launched into a tale of an encounter with a girl from school whose most notable feature at the age of ten had been consistently loose knicker elastic. If the other occupants of the carriage were listening in, all to the good.

Part of the disguise.

Once they’d arrived at Gloucester station, Clive took Harriet’s arm as they stood on the platform, the pair dawdling while the other passengers dispersed. A quick peck on the cheek and a word in the ear, in tones quite unlike the silly-ass ones he’d used earlier.

“Carter was devouring you with his eyes all the way here. Please be extra careful.”

“I will. And I noticed the attention. When Hazlerigg chose me for the job he certainly knew Carter’s preferred type.” Harriet squeezed Clive’s hand. “As a last resort, I’ve a flick knife in my handbag. I hope I don’t have to use it.”

“I’ll be nearby. I know you don’t need my protection but there’s safety in numbers.”

“I do appreciate it.” A final peck on the cheek before the operation launched into the next stage. “When this bloody war is over, Clive, we’ll find that cottage in the Cotswolds we’ve talked about. I’ll raise sheep and you can write your book.”

“It’s a deal. So make sure you damn well survive to make that dream a reality.”

 

***

 

As Carter strode off to his meeting, he couldn’t stop thinking about that well-dressed young woman in the corner of the carriage. He hadn’t been taken in by all the chat about old school pals, seeing through the disguise soon enough. But then they were birds of a feather, he and Harriet. Not that he believed Harriet was any more real a name than Carter, but a man could hardly use his family surname, Wagner, given the situation. Nobody at present would have dealings with the manager of an English agricultural supplies company who appeared to be Germanic, and Carter came close enough to Wagner in meaning.

Manufactured English name and background, manufactured English war record, although the limp he bore was genuine. Obtained on the western front, just not for the side who’d won. Now he was serving his homeland again, using eyes, ears, radio and codebook, rather than rifle and bayonet. A dangerous deployment—possibly a fatal one if he were discovered—fraught with danger on all sides including elements that left him open to blackmail. As perilous as the trenches had been.

Pausing at the kerb as a lorry came past, Carter remembered those legs, that face, the seductive little smile Harriet had favoured him with while Clive was concentrating on fiddling with his hat. Did Clive know about the subterfuge—being himself part of the disguise—or was he simply an English public school educated halfwit who would never question what he was told by someone he regarded as a nice girl? Someone with whom he was clearly smitten, given the way he’d been looking at Harriet and the way they’d been cuddling on the platform.

The young man had walked haltingly, one foot turned in perhaps as a result of a club foot or an injury received very early in this war, when Germany had chased the feckless British troops back across the channel. Like Carter’s limp, it appeared to be the real thing.

What were those two doing now?  Probably nothing more daring than walking by the river holding hands, rather than making the most of a soft bed in a local hotel, Carter was certain of that. He was almost as certain of the fact that he’d be seeing Harriet’s seductive smile again.

Birds of a feather.

 

***

 

Harriet entered the club, noting that Clive was already there, standing at the bar. He flashed an encouraging smile before taking his drink to a table in a booth, a seat where he wouldn’t be seen but could remain close at hand.

Not usually the done thing for a woman to visit a club on her own, unless she was in a certain profession, but this could hardly be described as a typical establishment. Ordering a drink, finding a comfortable seat, checking lipstick and stocking seams: all to be done before Carter arrived for the early evening drink he always took when he had business in Gloucester. The barman—put into the role when Hazlerigg started on Carter’s trail—would ensure nobody would get in the way of a smooth operation.

It wasn’t normally Harriet’s role to take part in field work, being more effectively employed using that notable intelligence for analysis.

However, like the club itself, this wasn’t the usual type of procedure. There’d be no entrapment, no sordid encounter in a hotel interrupted by one of the higher-ranking officers, perhaps Hazlerigg himself, with a view to coercing the target.

Would you want your wife to see these photographs? Would you like your masters to know you sleep with British agents?

Harriet understood that was how these things went, with the object of turning the German agent to work for the British as well or to wring him dry of information.

No photographs this time. Nor was the intention today merely to distract and delay Carter while a surreptitious raid was, even now, taking place on his home and office. Clive had said the officers conducting that part of the plan would be a joy to behold, leaving not a trace of their activities behind. Yet even those skilled operatives lacked the basic skills required to divest a man of something he carried on his person all the time and without him realising he’d been divested of it.

In reality, there had been no smart girls’ school for Harriet, just an East End slum upbringing, with a violent father and a mother always kept short of sufficient money to look after her brood. You had to learn quickly to survive, which often meant being on the wrong side of the law. Going on the game or acquiring the ability to pick a pocket. Harriet had chosen the latter.

Harriet had confessed the details of those formative years to Clive, over a bottle or two of wine from his father’s cellar. How a teacher had spotted the intelligence, had helped steer a path through education towards respectability and eventually into working for the intelligence services. Clive had told their boss, Hazlerigg, who’d been delighted to find his team contained such a potentially valuable talent and thrilled when the chance came to employ it.

The man they were up against was no fool. Carter would never let himself be taken unawares, falling for the bedroom trick and letting his clothes be rifled while he slept or was otherwise occupied. According to the barman—and to the other operatives who’d been keeping an eye on Carter—he never let his jacket out of his sight or his grip. And in one of the inner pockets lay Hazlerigg’s equivalent of the holy grail.

“Good evening, Mr Carter.” The barman’s greeting put Harriet on alert. Time to appear to be doing nothing more suspicious than listening to the pianist.

“Are you following me?”

Harriet glanced up at Carter’s voice. “I’m sorry?”

“We were in the same train compartment today.”

“Oh, yes.” Harriet gave him a smile as tempting as the one used earlier. “I’ve been here ages, so you must be following me.”

Carter took a seat. “Not quite. Although I guessed you might fetch up here.”

“How very perceptive of you. I had no idea this club existed until a friend recommended it to me.”

“Clive?”

“Clive? Oh, you must have seen him on the train. No,” Harriet chuckled. “Not his kind of place at all.”

“I can imagine. Shall we find somewhere quieter?” Carter nodded towards the booths.

“Why not?”

Once settled, and with the piano tinkling seductively in the background, Harriet edged closer. Hopefully this would be straightforward: a couple of drinks and a bit of a grope in the booth should provide opportunity enough, although if that didn’t work, there was the possibility that a fumble in the alley might be needed to access Carter’s pocket.

Soon, his hand was making its way along Harriet’s thigh and quickly after that the mission was accomplished. Whatever the barman had put in Carter’s drink to loosen his inhibitions had worked a treat, swiftly befuddling him and allowing Harriet a dip of the fingers and then an easy escape, virtue pretty well intact.

“What you lifted is hot stuff,” Clive said as they headed for Hazlerigg’s car. He’d had a brief flick through it before they left the club for the dark streets. “Add it to whatever the raid turns up and Carter will have no choice but turning to serve the right side or facing the noose. Unless he cheats us and the hangman before that, of course.”

“Ah. Take a look at this.” Harriet’s hand opened to reveal its deadly contents. “I snaffled his cyanide capsule while I was at it.”

“Harry, you’re an absolute marvel. I don’t care what Hazlerigg says, you deserve a kiss.”

Once the reward had been dispensed, Harriet’s voice dropped two octaves and a social class. “How can women wear these shoes? My feet are in agony.”

“Not as much agony as Carter’s going to be in when he sobers up and realises what’s happened.”

“He’s only got himself to blame. When you see through one lot of camouflage and find a kindred spirit, you should remember your new pal might be wearing another disguise, as well.” Harry chuckled. “Your ram in ewe’s stockings could also be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

19 thoughts on “Ewe’s Stockings – runner up in the Elizabeth Goudge award!”

      1. There’s room in my heart for more than one cross-dressing and/or genderqueer spy 😘

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