Work Header

By Any Other Name

Work Text:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet...
-Romeo and Juliet Act II Sc. ii

There were names everywhere. People shouted them at each other in the crowded tube stations – with relief, panic, hope, desperation. They were scrawled onto the labels sewn into Binnie's second- and third- and fourth-hand clothes, on the covers of magazines, and in the rows and rows of advertisements Eileen pored through in the newspapers every night. There were a few that kept turning up, again and again, circled in dull pencil in the folded pages. Polly, Mary, Colin, Eileen. Binnie had long since worked out that they were secret messages, even if she hadn't cracked the code. They were secrets that would lead Eileen away, back to Polly, back to the glittery space in the trees. Back to where – no, when – she came from.

Alf and Binnie weren't supposed to know that, of course. But they were good at keeping secrets. They had to be. And whatever happened to them after Eileen left, wherever they were sent, this was a respite. Breathing space. The eye of the storm, maybe, because the war was still raging around them, full of air raid sirens and crumbling buildings, bombs and aeroplanes and trembling people huddled in crowded tube stations, looking in dread for the names of people who would never come back.

“You could take one of those,” Alf had suggested once, trying to be helpful. “Loads of people get lost, right? It'd take ages before anybody'd be able to tell.”

“I don't want a dead person's name,” Binnie sniffed.

She changed it almost daily. Eileen and Sir Godfrey were always dutiful about remembering to use her chosen nom de plume of the day was, even if the others quickly forgot. She got through Vivian twice more, Greta, Agatha, Ginger, Vera, and, because Miss Laburnum would insist on them doing Peter Pan, Wendy. After a news report on the Queen's visit to the east end, she spent a few days as Elizabeth, and from Sir Godfrey's well-loved Shakespeare, tried out Juliet, Portia, Sylvia and Miranda. Only once had she claimed Viola, and Sir Godfrey had shaken his head.

“Not Viola,” he said, and she wondered if that was too much like taking a dead person's name. As if in apology, he added, “Perhaps Cordelia.”

That night the street she and Alf used to live on was bombed to dust and ashes, and Cordelia had slipped through the shadows and rubble to stare at the remains of her house. She tried to summon up some kind of feeling of loss, but none came. It was only bricks and stones and horrible neighbours and the stench of an overtaxed sewer.

Alf crawled out from beneath one of the ruined houses, clutching half a small figure of an aeroplane. “I don't see why you need a different name,” he grumbled. “Nobody'll ever call you anything but Binnie anyway.”

“They will if I tell them too,” Binnie countered, though she corrected herself almost immediately. “Well. Eileen will. And Sir Godfrey.”

Alf's fingers tensed around the broken model and he tossed it back into the dirt. “So what? Eileen's leavin'. She'll go like Polly did, and we won't ever see her again.”

“Shut up,” growled Binnie viciously, and stalked back the way they'd come. The roads were too blocked for the buses, and they walked all the way home.

* * *

Mr and Mrs Townsend of Upper Notting announce the engagement of their daughter Polly to Flight Officer Colin Templer... Binnie was the one to find it this time, and she considered tearing out the page so Eileen wouldn't see.

“Do you think they did? Get married, I mean. Polly and Colin,” Alf asked, without looking up from his map.

“Probably.” Binnie shrugged. “Did you see the way they were looking at each other?”

Alf sniffed. “Like I care about that? I was trying to figure out why an RAF pilot was being an air raid warden. But he wasn't either, was he? All that stuff about getting shot down, he made that up.”

“Maybe.” Binnie didn't really care about that part, and she certainly didn't mean to defend Colin, who turned up and took Polly away and who would take Eileen away too. But fair was fair. “We don't know what he did before he got here. Mike was one of their group too, and he was at Dunkirk and a spy.” She wasn't actually certain about the last part, but if Mike was leaving these advertisements, he was clearly doing something secret. And Eileen still thought he was dead – or he was dead, or would be dead, or however that worked with time travel.

Time travel. Nobody would believe them if Alf and Binnie tried to tell them. Except maybe Sir Godfrey. He'd had this look, when Polly left. Binnie had been watching all their faces, even if Alf hadn't. Besides, all of them, Polly and Mike and Eileen, were utter rubbish at secrets. They talked about it all the time, giving each other meaningful looks and whispering so that it was impossible not know they were up to something, and all you had to do was listen, and you figured a lot of it out.

“I bet we could stop it.” Alf was still staring fixedly at the map, but his eyes hadn't even blinked, and she didn't think he was actually looking at it. “You know. Keep an eye out for Colin or Dunworthy or whoever. They don't know we know, so we could just...lead them the wrong way, like. Keep them from taking her.”

Binnie considered it. She really did. They could just keep Eileen away from other time travellers, and she'd be stuck here, and have to stay with them.

She crunched up the newspaper and threw it. “You know we can't. If you love somebody, you want them to be happy.”

Alf sighed, and pushed the map away. “I know,” he said, “but sometimes I wish we didn't.”


* * *

When peace breaks out again (as it will, do you know) an the lights come on again, we shall look back on these days and remember gratefully the things that brought us cheer and gave us heart even in the glummest hours.
-Newspaper advertisement, 1941

Binnie threw all her weight onto the accelerator, yanking the car into third gear as they hurtled past the black shadows of the buildings and toward the heavy crimson fog on the horizon. Her uniform was askew, her hair poking out in wild wisps beneath her hat.

“You missed the road!” Meg shouted from next to her, gripping the edge of her seat.

Binnie shook her head and hauled on the steering wheel. “I didn't. That way's still blocked from the fires yesterday. We'll take Whitecross instead.” Meg subsided, her ash-smudged face still rigid with worry. Binnie was well-known for her knowledge of the back roads of London. Even without street signs, and with the landscape in constant flux as buildings, shelters and junctions were blotted from the skyline, she knew her way around the city. She hauled the Daimler down the narrow streets, the way lit only by the thin beams from headlamps which could barely penetrate the thick fog of swirling dust and debris.

When Binnie signed up to drive the ambulance, she'd expected Eileen to object. She'd had it in her head to sneak away, but she found she couldn't – not to Alf and not to Eileen. So she'd marched up to Eileen and said, “I'm going to drive ambulances.”

“You're too young,” Eileen said, not sounding at all surprised. “They won't take you at fifteen.”

“I won't tell them I'm fifteen,” Binnie said scornfully. As if lying about her age was an obstacle! She added defiantly, “I'm a good driver, and they need all the good drivers they can get.”

And to her surprise, Eileen had just made her promise to be careful. Later, with the benefit of hindsight, she would realise that this was probably because being an ambulance driver was more useful and not considerably less dangerous than anything else she was likely to be doing. So Binnie, who had been an evacuee and a bramblebush and Sleeping Beauty, had joined a crew of girls who drove cars. Her usual partner was Meg, a wisp of a girl with fine dark hair who looked even younger than Binnie.

The sky ahead was streaked crimson and black, as if the smouldering coals of every fire in London had been scattered amongst the clouds. It had been years now since the stars had been visible through the smoke and fog, even now the nightly raids had stopped. Binnie navigated by shadows, winding her way through dark alleyways and uneven, crumbling streets.

“There – over there!” Meg said suddenly, leaning forward, and gesturing frantically at the window.

“What? We're not there yet,” Binnie said, but she was already slowing. Meg pointed.

“That's a Daimler.” She was pointing. “With two girls outside – I think they've broken down. We should stop in case they've got a patient.”

Binnie slammed on the brakes and the Daimler sputtered to a halt. Meg had the door open and was already halfway out of the car by the time she'd got it out of gear. Binnie followed her, clambering out of the door and making her way over to them. “You all right?”

The FANY nearest was slim and blonde, her cap just slightly askew on her head. “We've broken down,” she said as she turned, and the gleam of the headlamp illuminated her face.

Binnie stopped short. It was Polly.

“But you're not supposed to be here!” The words left her lips before she could bite them back, but Polly showed no sign of having understood her.

“I know,” she explained. “We were supposed to go down the Mews, but the road was blocked, and then we ran over something. It's just the tyre, I'm sure.” Which wasn't what Binnie meant at all, but it gave her time to recover.

“They haven't got any patients,” Meg told Binnie. “Just a flat.”

Binnie nodded. “I can fix that, it'll only be a minute. Hold on, we've got a spanner under the seat.” Meg rushed off to retrieve it, and Polly smiled in relief. It was unquestionably her, and Binnie struggled to find a way to ask her why she was here, now that they had a moment alone.

But she still showed no sign of recognising Binnie at all. “Thanks for the help,” she said. “Which station are you?”

“Croydon. St. John's.” Not a flicker of recognition, but Binnie tried anyway. “What are you doing here?”

Polly smiled sheepishly. “We're from Dulwich, but the roads are an absolute mess after the V1 hit yesterday. No direct casualties, thankfully, but it's still a disaster. We're lucky you saw us.” Meg came dashing back then, waving a spanner and preventing Binnie from asking any more directly.

“Here you go, Hodbin. Don't worry, she's ace with a spanner, you'll be on the way in no time, back to – ” Meg faltered, and Polly supplied the answer for her.

“Dulwich. This is Talbot,” she said, gesturing to the other FANY, who was still shining a torch around the fender. “I'm Mary Kent.”

“Shepard,” Meg said, and jerked her hand at Binnie. “And Hodbin.”

“Eileen,” Binnie said, hoping for a reaction, but Polly showed no sign of familiarity at that, either. Binnie let out a frustrated breath and crouched down to get the flat tyre off. The Dulwich ambulance was an ancient Daimler, so old Binnie half expected it to have a hand-crank. Half the bolts were so rusted she was afraid they'd break off in her hand, but in the end she managed it. She always did.

“Thank you,” Polly said when she'd finished. “You're utterly brilliant.”

“You're welcome,” Binnie said, and Meg was pulling her back toward their car. She wanted to try one last thing, leave with some sort of parting shot, but she couldn't think of one in time, and they had an incident to get to. They waved quick farewells to Talbot and Mary Kent, and climbed back in the rickety doors to their car.

“I didn't know your name was Eileen,” Meg said as Binnie shifted the Daimler into gear. Neither did I, Binnie thought. She was clearly going to be Eileen for a while, now – but it felt like it made sense. It felt right. “Though I suppose I'd never thought to ask. Binnie's just short for Hodbin, of course. Why do you use that instead?”

Too many reasons, and not a single one Binnie wanted to offer right now. “It's my mum's name,” she said instead. “It'd get confusing if we were both called the same thing.”

“I suppose it would,” Meg agreed, her whole body turned to look out the window.

Binnie drove into the darkness. The sky slowly began to lighten – not real dawn, but only some of the smoke dissipating and floating away – and with it, just as steady and just as unstoppable, came the realisation that she'd told the truth after all.