Well, he hasn't come yet, sir, he's more than a bit late tonight.
--London Porter to Ernie Pyle, referring to the German Bombers
London--26 October 1940
By noon Michael and Merope still hadn't returned from Stepney, and Polly was beginning to get really worried. Stepney was less than an hour away by train. There was no way it could take Merope and Michael--correction, Eileen and Mike; she had to remember to call them by their cover names--no way it could take them six hours to go fetch Eileen's belongings from Mrs. Willett's and come back to Oxford Street. What if there'd been a raid and something had happened to them? The East End was the most dangerous part of London.
There weren't any daytime raids on the twenty-sixth; she thought. But there weren't supposed to have been five fatalities at Padgett's either. If Mike was right, and he had altered events by saving the soldier Hardy at Dunkirk, anything was possible. The space-time continuum was a chaotic system, in which even a minuscule action could have an enormous effect.
But two additional fatalities--and civilians, at that--could scarcely have changed the course of the war, even in a chaotic system. Thirty thousand civilians had been killed in the Blitz and nine thousand in the V-1 and V-2 attacks, and fifty million people had died in the war.
And you know he didn't lose the war, Polly thought. And historians have been traveling to the past for more than forty years. If they'd been capable of altering events, they'd have done it long before this. Mr. Dunworthy had been in the Blitz and the French Revolution and even the Black Death, and his historians had observed wars and coronations and coups all across history, and there was no record of any of them even causing a discrepancy, let alone changing the course of history.
Which meant that in spite of appearances, the five fatalities at Padgett's Department Store weren't a discrepancy either. Marjorie must have misunderstood what the nurses said. She'd admitted she'd only overheard part of their conversation. Perhaps the nurses had been talking about the victims from another incident. Marylebone had been hit last night, too, and Wigmore Street. Polly knew from experience that ambulances sometimes transported victims to hospital from more than one incident. And that people one thought had been killed sometimes turned up alive.
But if she told Mike about having thought the theater troupe was dead, he'd demand to know why she hadn't known St. George's would be destroyed and conclude that was a discrepancy as well. Which meant she needed to keep him from finding out about the five casualties at Padgett's till she'd had a chance to determine if there actually were that many.
Thank goodness he wasn't here when Marjorie came, she thought. You should be glad they're late.
And thank goodness her supervisor had taken Marjorie back to hospital, though it meant Polly hadn't had a chance to ask her what exactly the nurse had said. Polly had offered to take Marjorie there herself so she could ask the hospital staff about the fatalities, but Miss Snelgrove had insisted on going, "So I can give those nurses a piece of my mind. What were they thinking? And what were you thinking?" she scolded Marjorie. "Coming here when you should be in bed?"
"I'm sorry," Marjorie had said contritely. "When I heard Padgett's had been hit, I'm afraid I panicked and jumped to conclusions."
Like Mike did when he saw the mannequins in front of Padgett's, Polly thought. Like I did when I found out Eileen's drop in Backbury didn't open. And like I'm doing now. There's a logical explanation for why Marjorie heard the nurses say there were five fatalities instead of three, and for why no one's come to get us. It doesn't necessarily mean Oxford's been destroyed. Research might have got the date the quarantine ended wrong and not arrived at the manor till after Eileen had left for London to find me. And the fact that Mike and Eileen aren't back yet doesn't necessarily mean something's happened to them. They might simply have had to wait till Theodore's mother returned from her shift at the aeroplane factory. Or they might have decided to go on to Fleet Street to collect Mike's things.
They'll be here any moment, she told herself. Stop fretting over things you can't do anything about, and do something useful.
She wrote out a list of the times and locations of the upcoming week's raids for Mike and Merope--correction, Eileen--and then tried to think of other historians who might be here besides Gerald Phipps. Mike had said there was an historian here from some time in October to eighteenth December. What had happened during that period that an historian might have come to observe? Nearly all the war activity had been in Europe--Italy had invaded Greece, and the RAF had bombed the Italian fleet. What had happened here?
Coventry. But it couldn't be that. It hadn't been hit till November fourteenth, and an historian wouldn't need an entire fortnight to get there.
The war in the North Atlantic? Several important convoys had been sunk during that period, but being on a destroyer had to be a ten. And if Mr. Dunworthy was canceling assignments that were too dangerous . . .
But anywhere in the autumn of 1940 was dangerous, and he'd obviously approved something. The intelligence war? No, that hadn't really geared up till later in the war, with the Fortitude and V-1 and V-2 rocket disinformation campaigns. Ultra had begun earlier, but it was not only a ten, it had to be a divergence point. If the Germans had found out their Enigma codes had been cracked, it clearly would have affected the outcome of the war.
Polly looked over at the lifts. The center one was stopping on third. They're here--finally, she thought, but it was only Miss Snelgrove, shaking her head over the negligence of Marjorie's nurses. "Disgraceful! I shouldn't be surprised if she had a relapse with all her running about," she fumed. "What are you doing here, Miss Sebastian? Why aren't you on your lunch break?"
Because I don't want to miss Mike and Eileen like I missed Eileen when I went to Backbury, but she couldn't say that. "I was waiting till you got back, in case we had a rush."
"Well, take it now," Miss Snelgrove said.
Polly nodded and, when Miss Snelgrove went into the stockroom to take off her coat and hat, told Doreen to send word to her immediately if anyone came in asking for her.
"Like the airman you met last night?"
Who? Polly thought, and then remembered that was the excuse she'd given Doreen for needing to know the names of airfields. "Yes," she said, "or my cousin who's coming to London, or anyone."
"I promise I'll send the lift boy to fetch you the moment anyone comes. Now, go."
Polly went, running downstairs first to look up and down Oxford Street and see if Mike and Eileen were coming, and then going up to ask the shop assistants in the lunchroom about airfields. By the end of her break, she had half a dozen names that began with the correct letters and/or had two words in their names.
She ran back down to third. "Did anyone ask for me?" she asked Doreen, even though they obviously hadn't come.
"Yes," Doreen said. "Not five minutes after you left."
"But I told you to send word to me!"
"I couldn't. Miss Snelgrove was watching me the entire time."
I knew I shouldn't have left, Polly thought. This is exactly like Backbury.
"You needn't worry, she hasn't gone," Doreen said. "I told her you were on lunch break, and she said she had other shopping to do and she'd--"
"She? Only one person? Not a man and a girl?"
"Only one, and definitely not a girl. Forty if she was a day, graying hair in a bun, rather scraggy-looking--"
Miss Laburnum. "Did she say what she was shopping for?" Polly asked.
"Yes," Doreen said. "Beach sandals."
"I sent her up to Shoes. I told her it was likely too late in the season for us to carry them, but she was determined to go see. I'll watch your counter if you want to go--oh, here she is," she said as the lift opened.
Miss Laburnum emerged, carrying an enormous carpetbag. "I went to see Mrs. Wyvern and obtained the coats," she said, setting the carpetbag on Polly's counter, "and I thought I'd bring them along to you."
"Oh, you needn't have--"
"It was no bother. I spoke to Mrs. Rickett, and she said yes, your cousin could share your room. I also went to see Miss Harding about the room for your Dunkirk friend. Unfortunately, she'd already let it, to an elderly gentleman whose house in Chelsea was bombed. Dreadful thing. His wife and daughter were both killed." She clucked sympathetically. "But Mrs. Leary has a room to let. A second-floor back. Ten shillings the week with board."
"Is she in Box Lane as well?" Polly asked, wondering what excuse she could give after Miss Laburnum had gone to all this trouble if it was in a street on Mr. Dunworthy's forbidden list.
"No, she's just round the corner. In Beresford Court."
Thank goodness. Beresford Court wasn't on the list either.
"Number nine," Miss Laburnum said. "She promised me she won't let it to anyone else till your friend's seen it. It should do very nicely. Mrs. Leary is an excellent cook," she added with a sigh and opened the carpetbag.
Polly caught a glimpse of bright green inside. Oh, no, she thought. It hadn't even occurred to her when she'd asked Miss Laburnum about the coats that she might--
"I hoped to get a wool overcoat for your gentleman friend," Miss Laburnum said, pulling out a tan raincoat, "but this Burberry was all they had. There were scarcely any ladies' coats either. Mrs. Wyvern says more and more people are making do with last year's coats, and I fear the situation will only grow worse. The government's talking of rationing clothing next--" She stopped at the expression on Polly's face. "I know it's not very warm--"
"No, it's just what he needs. There's been so much rain this autumn," Polly said, but her eyes were on the carpetbag. She braced herself as Miss Laburnum reached in again.
"That's why I got your cousin this," she said, pulling out a bright green umbrella. "It's a frightful color, I know, and it doesn't match the black coat I obtained for her, but it was the only one without any broken spokes. And if it's too gaudy for her, I thought we might be able to use it in The Admirable Crichton. The green would show up well onstage."
Or in a crowd, Polly thought.
"It's lovely, I mean, I know my cousin won't think it too bright, and I'm certain she'll lend it to us for the play," she said, chattering in her relief.
Miss Laburnum laid the umbrella on the counter and pulled the black coat out of the carpetbag, then a black felt hat. "They hadn't any black gloves, so I brought along a pair of my own. Two of the fingers are mended, but there's still wear in them." She handed them to Polly. "Mrs. Wyvern said to tell you that if any of Padgett's employees are in a similar situation to send them to her and she'll see they get coats as well." She snapped the bag neatly shut. "Now, do you know if Townsend Brothers sells plimsolls and where I might find them?"
"Plimsolls?" Polly said. "You mean canvas tennis shoes?"
"Yes, I thought they might work instead of beach sandals. The sailors on board ship might have been wearing them, you see, when it sank. I asked in your shoe department, but they hadn't any. Sir Godfrey simply doesn't realize how filthy the station floors are--chewing gum and cigarette ends and who knows what else. Two nights ago, I saw a man"--she leaned across the counter to whisper--"spitting. I quite understand that Sir Godfrey has more pressing things on his mind, but--"
"We may have some in the games department," Polly said, cutting her off in midflow. "It's on fifth. And if we're out of plimsolls," which Polly was almost certain they would be, with rubber needed for the war effort, "you mustn't worry. We'll think of something else."
"Of course you will." Miss Laburnum patted her arm. "You're such a clever girl."
Polly escorted her over to the lift and helped her into it. "Fifth," she said to the lift boy, and to Miss Laburnum, "Thank you ever so much. It was terribly kind of you to do all this for us."
"Nonsense," Miss Laburnum said briskly. "In difficult times like these, we must do all we can to help each other. Will you be at rehearsal tonight?" she asked as the lift boy pulled the door across.
"Yes," Polly said, "as soon as I get my cousin settled in."
If she and Mike are back by then, she added silently as she went back to her counter, but she felt certain now they would be.
You were worried over nothing, she thought, picking up the umbrella and looking ruefully at it. And it will be the same thing with Mike and Eileen. Nothing's happened to them. There weren't any daytime raids today. Their train's been delayed, that's all, like yours was this morning, and when they get here, you'll tell Eileen the airfield names you've collected, and she'll say, "That's the one," and we'll ask Gerald where his drop is and go home, and Mike will go off to Pearl Harbor, Eileen will go off to VE-Day, and you can write up your observations of "Life in the Blitz" and go back to fending off the advances of a seventeen-year-old boy.
And in the meantime, she'd best tidy up her counter so she wouldn't have to stay late tonight. She gathered up the umbrella, the Burberry, and Eileen's coat and put them in the stockroom and then put the stockings her last customer had been looking at back in their box. She turned to put the box on the shelf.
And heard the air-raid siren begin its unmistakable up-and-down warble.
In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this. Everyone, man or woman, has done their best.
_VE-Day, 8 May 1945
London--7 May 1945
"douglas, the door's closing!" paige shouted
from the platform.
"Hurry!" Reardon urged. "The train will leave--"
"I know," she said, attempting to squeeze past the two Home Guards who were still singing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." And forming a solid wall. She tried to go around, but dozens of people were trying to board the car and pushing her back away from the door.
Connie Willis, who was recently inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, has received six Nebula Awards and ten Hugo Awards for her fiction; her previous novel, Passage, was nominated for both. Her other works include Doomsday Book, Lincoln’s Dreams, Bellwether, Impossible Things, Remake, Uncharted Territory, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Fire Watch, and Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. Connie Willis lives in Colorado with her family.