The principal character of this novel is Bill Sarratt, a thirty-something temporary civil servant working in an unnamed government ministry. The highly pressurized environment in which Sarratt is employed leads him to adopt a cynical approach towards his workplace, as illustrated by his musings on the possible repercussions of an air raid:
As I got near the office I suddenly wondered what would happen if they’d written the place off in the night. I thought it might be quite a good thing if they had. Then we could start again. But they’d need to do it in daylight, so as to get most of the staff, if it was going to be any good.
As well as being hardworking and diligent, Sarratt is also full of bright ideas and because some of his colleagues at the ministry are more interested in feathering their own nests than trying to win the war there are frequent clashes between the two ideologies:
‘You’re always looking for trouble,’ said Harness.
‘I’m always looking for somebody with guts,’ I said. ‘And never finding him.’
Marcia, Sarratt’s saintly wife, is being permitted by her husband to have an affair with Stephen. Nominally a poet, Stephen’s role in the novel is that of a monstrous egoist and acid-tongued drama queen completely devoid of moral scruples. Sarratt hopes that the affair will fizzle out of its own accord once Marcia realizes what her boyfriend is really like. As this shows no signs of happening, he consents to Marcia leaving him temporarily so that she can go and live with Stephen. To keep herself out of mischief during the day, Marcia also finds a job bandaging up air-raid victims at a casualty dressing station in Aldgate.
Much of the office-based narrative is taken up with descriptions of Sarratt’s daily routine and his struggle to get any meaningful work done. But when he devises an Area Unit Scheme—a way in which manufacturers can cooperate if one of them is put out of action by enemy bombing—he finds that his proposal is backed not just by his immediate superior but also by the minister himself. Away from the ministry, several memorable set pieces have a direct connection with the nightly bombing raids, notably an encounter with a drunken serviceman who runs amok in a hotel.
Marcia finally breaks off her liaison with Stephen and agrees to meet her husband for a meal to celebrate both their reunion and the successful adoption of the Area Unit Scheme as government policy. However, at a meeting held to ratify the scheme the minister agrees that it should remain voluntary rather than compulsory, a feature which to Sarratt renders his plan worse than useless. He walks out of the meeting in disgust, effectively kissing goodbye to his job.
Sarratt is sitting in a restaurant waiting for his wife to arrive when he is informed of a huge air raid in East London. Immediately fearing the worse, he heads to Aldgate, fighting his way through roadblocks and past police officers and firemen to get there. The casualty dressing station has suffered a direct hit and Marcia is trapped beneath the rubble. Realizing that the situation is hopeless, Sarratt administers a morphine injection to ease her suffering and stays with her until the last vestiges of life have drained away. He then returns home and phones up Stephen to tell him that Marcia is dead. Anticipating Stephen’s likely reaction to the tragic news, Sarratt rushes over to the other man’s house. Stephen has indeed tried to gas himself but Sarratt is in time to abort the suicide attempt.