September 1939 – Newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle arrive in Bucharest, as does the impoverished Prince Yakimov, who takes up a temporary job as a journalist on a British paper to save himself from complete poverty. Harriet is introduced to her fellow expatriates (making friends with the middle-class Bella, who has married a local man), and to Guy's Romanian friend and admirer Sophie. However, their happy life is interrupted by the assassination of Romania's prime minister Călinescu and Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland. Rumours fly of a German invasion of Romania and Guy, though absorbed in his work and organising social events, is encouraged by his Communism to take steps to protect the family of a Jewish student of his, Sasha Drucker, from the anti-Semitic Romanian regime.
January 1940 – Commander Sheppey holds a clandestine meeting to plot against the authorities. Guy feels guilty about not being on active service and is determined to do something productive. When he cancels a lunch arrangement with Harriet, she is worried about his whereabouts. Clarence Lawson happily entertains a lonely Harriet. Concern for Sasha Drucker and his family intensifies when they go missing. Harriet takes in a stray cat. When Guy and Harriet spend a weekend in the mountains together, the feckless Yakimov is left looking after their flat, with tragic consequences. Guy has ambitious plans to stage a production of Troilus and Cressida; however, casting causes some dissent. During the after-show celebration, Dobson makes a disturbing announcement about the political situation. Harriet and Guy encounter an old friend who is in desperate need of their assistance.
June 1940 – The fascist Iron Guard increase their power and the British fall out of favour with the Romanians. Sasha remains in hiding at the Pringles' home and becomes friends with Harriet. Sophie attempts to lure Guy to her apartment, and he finally sees through her. Another expatriate, Toby Lush, arrives, looking for a job at the university. Yakimov puts his life at risk for the sake of a good meal and a bottle of wine. When Dobson announces that the British Legation recommends everyone should return home, he receives a mixed reaction. As a result of Yakimov’s impropriety, Guy finds himself a wanted man. Harriet attends Sasha’s father’s trial but has difficulty giving a true account of events. Tension mounts as the fascists take over, and the Pringles, with the help of Clarence Lawson, try to smuggle Sasha out to safety. In the midst of chaos, British academic Lord Pinkrose arrives to give a lecture on Byron. As the violence escalates, the expats plan their escape routes.
October 1940 - A despondent Harriet arrives in Athens, where she is overjoyed to see Yakimov at a cafe. They both find employment at the British Information Office, but, when Pinkrose begins to work there, the mood turns sour. Harriet meets a young soldier, Charles Warden, who is quite taken with her. She considers having an affair with him, but, as she is going to his hotel room on the final afternoon before he must leave, she sees Sasha Drucker in the hallway. Sasha is convinced that the Pringles turned him in; Harriet assures him they did not. The delay makes her think better of her relationship with Warden. Guy applies for a lecturing post at the English School; however, he is dismayed to find he is not the first in the queue. When Athens comes under enemy fire, Yaki lights a cigarette outside during the blackout and is shot dead by sentries. The remaining group departs Athens for Cairo on a boat.
April 1941 – After their unceremonious arrival in Cairo, Guy and Harriet are forced to stay in an old brothel. Guy struggles to find work when it emerges that an old adversary is in charge of the English School. When Guy has to go to Alexandria, Harriet moves into ‘Garden City’ with Dobson. Naïve young officer, Simon Boulderstone, goes in search of his brother Hugo and befriends Harriet. Harriet is also introduced to eccentric Mr. Liversage, flirtatious Edwina and authoritative Mr. Clifford. Harriet and Simon visit the pyramids with Liversage and Clifford and climb them together. Harriet warns a naive Simon that the Egyptians do not love the British because the British have exploited them for years for control of the Suez Canal. Simon doesn't understand until he, Harriet and Mortimer, a female soldier, visit a live sex show, at which he is disgusted. Harriet and Simon also meet the Hoopers, a rich couple whose son has just been killed by a land mine. The Germans close in and Simon must go fight.
Autumn 1942 – In an attempt to help Simon recover from the death of his brother, he’s taken under the wing of those at ‘Garden City.’ Guy is enthusiastic about two new teachers he’s employed. Simon becomes a hero in a desert skirmish and is promoted to liaison officer. Angela Hooper leaves her husband and takes up with Bill Castlebar, a married man. When his wife Mona returns, Angela and Harriet go to Luxor. However, there is an outbreak of cholera and Angela leaves. Harriet stays and sees Aiden Pratt, a young officer who was once a great actor in London. She thinks he is in love with her because he implores her and Guy to come visit him in Damascus. He also tells her a horrific story of his time on a cruise line after he declared himself a conscientious objector to the war. The ship was torpedoed and all the evacuated children died. He then decided to go fight. Lord Pinkrose is determined to give his lecture on Byron, and Guy arranges it. However, some Egyptian nationalists confuse him with another English aristocrat and shoot him at the podium. Harriet contracts dysentery when she comes back from Luxor and has to stay in the hospital for weeks. Guy pays her little attention and continues rehearsing his newest play. Harriet decides to go back to England. Simon is being driven to his new post when the jeep stops at a WC and his driver is killed by a hidden mine. Simon's legs are paralysed as a result of the accident. Harriet leaves Guy at the zoo to get on the boat alone, but at the last minute sees Mortimer and begs her to take her to Damascus. The episode ends with Dobson seeing that the boat Harriet was supposed to be on has been torpedoed and there are no survivors.
January 1943 – As Guy struggles to cope with his presumed loss of Harriet, Simon Boulderstone starts his painful and slow road to recovery. Harriet makes a new friend and rediscovers old ones as she takes in the sights of Damascus, whilst Aiden Pratt's feelings of rejection by Guy bring about unhappy consequences; Aiden is a closet homosexual. Harriet, discovering that Guy thinks her dead, is rushed back to Egypt by Bill Castlebar. On their return, Castlebar collapses and dies; Angela is desolate as Bill's wife takes on the funeral arrangements. Harriet and Guy are reunited and climb the pyramids together.