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Heaven Maid

Karen Taylor

Breaking the Code

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Karen Taylor is a London-based writer.  Her day job is journalism, but she has written many short stories, and self-published a collection of children’s books.  Her financial thriller The Trade is published by Endeavour Press and available on Amazon.  






The third book in her Toffee Maker’s series for younger children is available free on Amazon at the moment.  It’s seasonal – The Toffee Maker’s Christmas Crisis.

My mother’s maiden name is Heaven.  But she isn’t an angel.  Who is?  She is a feisty, funny, honest and fiercely independent person, with a naughty streak. And I love her.  When my son was born the midwife said: “This one’s got a mind of his own.”   Chip off the old block, I thought.  When my mother’s mother was dying she said: “What will happen to our Maud?”  Maud Heaven was 15 years old.  My grandmother needn’t have worried.  Maud survived and thrived.  She looked after her widowed father for a while and then headed to London, changed her name to Maureen and met my father at The Hammersmith Palais.

She never wanted another man when my father died 20 years ago: “Why would anyone want me at my age?” she said at 67, “apart from to cook and clean for them.”  Debateable.  But she was happy to do her own thing, with a small and loose collection of friends and neighbours. “Doesn’t do to get to thick with people,” she advised me, “You always fall out.” I didn’t always take her gems of wisdom to heart.  And, possibly, my mother’s tendency to be “honest to a fault”, didn’t sit well with some.  It more than irked me on occasion!  But, as my father would say, only the Pope’s infallible.  And Maud Heaven wasn’t a saint. 

But she did get thick with one person.  A lovely lady who lived on her estate whose husband had been friends with my father and died shortly after him.  Nine months ago my mother’s best friend Jean died.   We all expected an effect, but the blow was explosive. 

She turned her distress on her next door neighbour… and the consequences were extreme.  Six months of phone calls, constant visits, worry and, when the crisis finally erupted (as predicted by her GP, who she refused to see), we eventually managed to persuade my mother to go to a Mental Health Centre (she never knew it was a Mental Health Centre.  “Somethings are best kept to yourself”… shhh). 

I sat there, in a semi-circle, while they assessed her – a female psychiatrist with a thick Russian accent and a male nurse from Grimsby.  The psychiatrist dipped in and out like a predatory sea gull, finally resting on the suggestion that my mother might be lonely and depressed.

Her response:  “I didn’t understand a word you said, dear.”

The psychiatrist tried again, with me acting as an interpreter.

 “Why would I be lonely with two such wonderful daughters!” exclaimed my mother, who flounced out of the door, summoning me to follow.  But I stayed for a while, for a brief discussion.  Outside the receptionist was grinning ear-to-ear, and laughed: “Good on her!”  My Mum is, and always will be, a character.

My sister and I managed to persuade her to take mild anti-psychotic medication for her diagnosed late onset paranoid schizophrenia. I sometimes wonder whether they got this right and she was just grieving and lashing out in the only way she knew?  But her anxiety and night terrors lessened, and she became more relaxed:  she still railed about the “witch next door, with her potions that she poured into her eyes and throat at night” but we’d get quality time in between on our frequent visits.  

Three weeks before my mother went down with a major stroke, I enjoyed two lovely meals with her.  The first at a favourite restaurant in Milford-on-Sea in Hampshire.  I persuaded her to go for a coastal walk afterwards and we both marvelled at the skyline.  Dramatic clouds, seemingly parted – I thought – to beckon her.  A week later, we had another lunch; she was frailer, things weren’t so good. The following week she suggested I pick the venue; unusual for my mother.  I chose a nearby Fish n Chip shop.  We were going to eat in… but she decided otherwise.  We took the food home, wrapped in paper, but she barely touched a thing.

That day, as the late afternoon light gathered in, I said I wanted to go for a walk by the sea.  A walk I used to go on with my father and, lots of times, on my own.  My mother said no, she wouldn’t join me, she was fine… And then, as I was about to go, and asked her again, she agreed to come.  So we walked down by the sea, the two of us, the light low, the waves rolling in and we sat on a bench and watched it all unfold.

As I set off to leave for London I asked if she wanted to come home with me or, at least, arrange to see the doctor.  “Don’t interfere, dear,” she said, “I’ll let you know when I need you.”

Two days later I called her.  And she said come and get me.  And I did.  She left that request to the very last.  Till she had no other option.  But I arrived in time.  Just.  And we have more time.  And, in the hospital, and now as she prepares to go into her nursing home, it’s clear to all who know her, that she has a mind of her own.  And it’s a good one.  

This short story pays tribute to the Bletchley Park Code Breakers’ skills and contribution to the war effort, as well as to their dedication and modesty.  The plot and characters, however, are entirely fictional.



I bit back my disappointment.  She looked nothing like the photograph. I barely listened to the matron at my side, filling in details, telling me what time she takes her medication, her various levels of lucidity.


“She eats very little.  Refuses to be fed.  Doesn’t speak. But, generally, she’s easier than some.  She knows when enough’s enough.  Not like a lot of them.  So, check on her in the morning – see if she needs to be helped to the toilet.  Generally, no.  She makes her own way…Very, very slowly!   And, keep an eye on her table light.  She’ll keep it burning all night.  Okay?”


I followed the short, plump woman to the next bed.  This patient looked marginally stronger, but I wasn’t paying attention.  Not really.  I glanced back at the elderly woman in the first bed – just a quick look, to see, if possible, some resemblance to that worn photograph in my mother’s drawer: a patch of creamy, luminous skin, one chestnut hair, shining like copper wire in wool matting?  Green eyes?  Of course the photo was in black and white, tinged with sepia.  But I had caught that one glimpse; when she stepped out of a fading fantasy and in through the door of our little house.  But more of that later…


It was almost as if she had knocked on the door again. I felt the hammer at my chest; her eyes, just green slits, were enough stark light to tell me that someone was at home.   I looked down at my hands; the intensity of her gaze, so unexpected, took my breath away.


“This one does like her food!  Gobbles like a goose and bricks like a mare.  So be prepared to put in the work.  But you’re a good girl.  Aren’t you, Elsie?” said the matron, steering me away by my elbow.  I looked back to Bed 1.  But she’d turned to the newspaper on her lap, stroking the pages of The Telegraph as if they were Egyptian cotton sheets.


The matron stopped abruptly on her two stout legs and followed my eyes. “Likes to think she can read.  Requests The Telegraph every day – to do the crossword, if you like!  Waste of time – just doodles.  Nonsense.  But it keeps her happy.”


She didn’t look happy.  None of them did.  Biding time; blocking beds; wistful in the waiting room of death. 


The matron click-clicked her sturdy black shoes to the last resident.


“Does she like to go outside?  Where the light’s better?” I said, turning back to the old lady with the sharp, green eyes. I thought I saw her re-settle, the paper rustling on the bed.


“Who?  Mary?  I dare say she might?  But who has the time to take her!”


You may wonder why someone of my education would be working as a care assistant at the Nightingale Nursing Home in Sunridge, Kent. You may question the appointment, but they didn’t.  I could see they couldn’t believe their luck – a man, in good shape for his sixty-five years, willing to work for the minimum wage: no criminal record, an unblemished career in the Civil Service – wanting to put something back into society.  It was that easy. And, quite frankly, I don’t expect to be working here long.  Just long enough to answer a few questions of my own; crack the code – the enigma that was my mother.


I found the photograph of Mary Elizabeth (Lizzie) Fitzgerald when I was clearing my mother’s things after she passed in the autumn.  I’d seen it once or twice before – my mother, not often careless, occasionally left it on her bedside table while attending to other things.  There were the two of them, perched coquettishly on a rock, shoes discarded on a pale carpet of sand, bright red smiles beaming into the lens, hair swept up in matching Victory Rolls.  I’d never seen my mother look so alive.  Sometimes, when she didn’t realise I was watching, I’d see her brow crumple in concentration as if she was trying to re-live something.  Or, possibly, make sense of it.


We knew, of course, about her time at Bletchley Park.  That she was a code breaker.  When the publicity broke in 1993 it was only a matter of time before there was a knock on the door.  But she refused to make a big deal of the episode.  It was a long time ago.  Gruelling, if worthy work, filed away in the archives of her life, much like that photo.  


She sat us both down one day – my father and I – over a hastily convened Sunday lunch and told us about her selection for Bletchley Park.  Like many of the others she was a languages scholar.   She told us how she passed the aptitude tests and how she was timed doing The Telegraph crossword puzzle.  Her clipped measured voice as impersonal as a news presenter’s.  


I think I would have left it at that. I had things to do that day – I was happy to return home as soon as the perfunctory lunch was over.  It was as I was placing the dinner plates by the sink that I noticed the photograph on the window sill.  There was a small spot of grease on the corner, a tiny dribble of oil from the salad dressing.


“It’s all right, Richard.  I’ll do the dishes.  You need to get back to London,” she’d said, gesturing me towards the door.  I didn’t move. 


“Maybe your father? Gerald,” she called, brushing one hand down the side of her dress, the other flapping in the air, like a small bird trying to escape a trap.   I saw her unease and with it, my chance. 


“How charming you look,” I said, leaning across her and picking up the photo.  “And who is your friend?  Didn’t she visit once?”


“I don’t think so,” said my mother, the hand flying free now, darting towards my own.  I turned abruptly, still holding the photograph.  I knew better than to expect her to grab it from me.  Instead she returned to the sink, picked up a plate and started to scrape off the remains of lunch.


“I think she was someone from the tennis club,” she said, turning on the tap.


“Oh, I thought she might have been one of your code breaker friends,” I replied as casually as possible, placing the photo face down on the kitchen table.


She turned to me, perhaps detecting that indiscernible act in the reflection of the window. “We didn’t have friends, dear,” she said, looking me straight in the eye. “Too busy.  It was all rather tedious.”


That’s what brought me here.  To Nightingale Nursing Home.  Before she died my mother made a point of writing Mary Elizabeth (Lizzie) Fitzgerald on the back of the photo.  It was my time to crack a code.




In the morning, with the light just breaking through the dusty louvre windows, I leant over and placed a cup of tea on Mary’s bedside table.  I watched her stir, saw the first glint of green as she opened her eyes.  She didn’t recoil.  Simply moved to sit up, allowing me to help her, plump up the pillows and place The Telegraph by her side.


Her eyes, reptilian in folds of ash grey, watched me steadily.


“Would you like some breakfast?” I said.  “We could take it outside.”


She turned towards the blind, its battered white surface splattered with dead insects.  Taking a cloth from the breakfast trolley I wiped it clean and then pulled the grimy beaded string, allowing the blind to creak open.  It revealed a window equally as filthy – but, also, an early autumnal garden: small clusters of valiant roses blooming among the reddening foliage.   


“You could eat in The Gazebo.  The light’s better there.  You could do the crossword.”


I thought I saw a flash of indecision or, possibly, apprehension.  But it was fleeting.  She nodded and we made preparations for our escapade.


The excursion caused quite a stir on the ward, drawing the attention of the sour-faced matron.  But by the end of the week it had become routine.  I would bring Mary’s tea, of which she would take one sip, and I would allow her to attend to her toilette while I carried out my other morning duties.  I tried to ensure that her customary scrambled eggs on toast were at least warm beneath their plastic dome when we arrived at The Gazebo. But that was hardly the point.  Like her morning tea – she barely touched a drop.  Instead, she would spread out her paper across her lap and, after a cursory look at the news, would start on the crossword.   The matron was right – her answers were gibberish.  But Mary filled in the boxes.  


It was on the last day of September, when the temperature, which had been so good for the time of year, had begun to drop, that a thought occurred to me.  The puzzles – I went through the recycling box and cut out the puzzles, lining them up on the wooden table in the small staff room. There were more similarities than not. These were Mary’s own code.  I needed her to solve my puzzle.  It was time.


I caught a glimmer of a smile as I crossed the garden to The Gazebo, the low light casting patterns on the lawn and leaves.  Sitting down in the chair opposite her, I let Mary finish the last few clues of her crossword.  When she rested back in her chair, I picked up the paper, folded it neatly and put it to one side. 


“Mary,” I said, leaning forward.  I was mindful of startling her.  But her eyes, so expressive, encouraged me.  “Mary, I believe we’ve met before.  I believe you visited my mother, Geraldine Hunter, in the 1950s.  I just wanted to know…” I was at a loss for words, so passed the photo to her. She picked it up in one worn hand, raising it, using the light to full effect.


It was in that moment, in that shaft of light, that I saw Mary – Mary Elizabeth (Lizzy) Fitzgerald – for the first time. She looked at me, her eyes as steady and intelligent as ever, her mouth moving, ever so slightly, trying to form words.  She grasped my hand; a reflection of an earlier time.




Voices were rising in the living room.  I was in the downstairs parlour working on a fiddly model kit my mother had bought me.  The glue was clinging to my fingers, sticking to the tiny pieces of plastic.  I went over to the sink to wash my hands, opening the window, straining to hear their conversation.  “For the best,” I heard my mother say as the living room door opened and the sound of feet could be heard coming down the hall. The guest came into the parlour, stooping down to where I sat on the floor, the pieces of model aeroplane spread before me.


“The Lancaster Bomber,” she said, smiling prettily, resting a hand on mine.  I could feel the warmth of her body, her sweet scent, like roses from the garden.


A shadow past across the floor; my mother was standing in the doorway.


“You’re a good boy,” the woman said. “This is good work.” Her clear green eyes examined the model, her cheek so close to mine I could feel its soft down.  As she rose to leave I turned to her, catching that look – the one I saw on that last bright day of September.


I didn’t know it at the time, but it was to be goodbye all over again.  Mary died in the night.  Peacefully and easily, according to the matron, who had already cleared the bed. 


“She left something for you,” she said, as I stood there, a cup of tea in my hand.  I drank one sip, placed the cup and saucer on the bedside table and took the envelope from the matron.  She waited for me to open it.  But I put it in my pocket.


Later, in the staff room, I ran a kitchen knife along the seal, trying hard not to tear the contents.  There were three items: a letter; a photograph, black and white, tinged with sepia of two women on the beach; and a smaller photo of a mother and a newborn baby.  Catching my breath, I turned the photo over.  Richard and Lizzie, St Theresa’s Nursing Home, 07.16.50.  Underneath were short blocks of code; I traced the neat curves, the ink bleeding beneath my touch.    


It was the now familiar code and the one Mary had used again in the letter she’d left me.  A page of curves and lines and dots and dashes danced before my bleared vision.  Wiping my eyes with the sleeve of my jumper, I spread out Mary’s completed crossword puzzles so I could match the letters of the answers to her symbols.  It could only be a matter of time before I broke the code.  My questions finally answered.  






















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