Thursday

“I suppose at some point,” says Graham, “you’re gonna tell us how you did it.”

Around them, the TARDIS hums. It is the ambient hum it makes when the machinery is at rest and waiting for someone to do something. He has learned to pick apart these hums, to differentiate them by mood and to know when a change in pitch or a sudden pulsing means a thing is about to happen. It occurs to Graham, right now, in the casual laziness of an uneventful spring morning, that he has assimilated this knowledge without even realising it; that the process of time and space travel has altered him in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It is the sort of realisation that only springs to mind during the quiet moments, such as this one, a matter of days after that unexpected phone call and then the Vworp, vworp of a materialising police box, and the resumption of his old life, or, depending on how you looked at it, his new one.

From the black wooden box she is in the process of rewiring, the Doctor looks up. “The prison break?” she says. “Not much to tell. Truth be told I can barely remember.”

Graham scratches his head. “Seriously?”

“Trust me, when you’ve broken out of as many prisons as I have, they all sort of blend into one. You know. Like Nordic dramas, only without the scenery. Occasionally you get a fun one, but for the most part they’re all fairly generic.” The Doctor picks up a magnifying glass: tongue extended, seemingly in concentration, she fiddles with a screw the size of a lentil. “This was one of those.”

“So you just got out and came back?”

“Yep. Nothing remotely interesting. Well, apart from the orangutan. And the laughing gas. And the army of sentient vending machines that wanted to make me their ruler.” She gives an apologetic smile. “Just another Thursday, really.”

Graham realises that this is probably all the explanation he’s likely to get, and goes back to his newspaper. He is mocked for having it. Ryan makes jokes about living in the stone age. Even Yas has pointed out that it’s already largely obsolete by the time he reads it, and that digital media is the only way to get up-to-date information. Graham is having none of this. He likes the feel of the thing as he holds it, a small and transient concoction, the world reduced to black and white with splashings of colour, meticulously produced (despite the mistakes), the cheap roughness of the paper, the ink bleeding onto his ageing fingers. He likes having something tangible, this global outlook distilled and framed in a few sheets of grey-white A3. He’s got the whole world in his hands…

Graham gives a start. He hasn’t thought of that in years, and instantly memories of school assemblies soar unceremoniously to the surface, like a diver about to catch the bends. Log tables and playground skirmishes and sneaky fags behind the bike sheds. A caretaker’s bearded threats and scraping nails on a blackboard. Rosie Billington and the way she giggled. The smell of chalk.

“You’re quiet,” says the Doctor, looking up.

“I was just thinking.”

“We don’t have to do this,” she says. “You know, if you’d rather not. I mean there’s no hurry.”

He thinks: there is, really. The ship is a precision engine, built for the most extraordinary of manoeuvres, leaping galaxies and centuries like a child vaulting a gym horse, but its captain has less control over her vessel than she’s prepared to admit, even to herself. You simply never know where you’re going to land – it is the opposite of a bus, and it has been this aspect, now that he comes to hold it in mind, which has probably been the most difficult to grasp in all the time they have been travelling. He tells the Doctor none of this, because she usually nods in an unsuccessful attempt at empathy, the eyes shy and withdrawn, the jaw uncomfortably clenched.

But downtime is rare and you never know when the klaxon will wail signalling another emergency – to which the Doctor responds like Pavlov’s dog chasing its next meal – and right now he is as resolved as he likely to be, and so after a moment he says “No. Let’s get it done.”

“But Ryan – ”

“Yeah, well, we couldn’t agree. Different locations, y’see. He wanted the woods at Ecclesall, because she used to love walking there. I wanted Scarborough, because that’s where I proposed.”

“So what are we doing here?”

“It’s a compromise. I found a bit of map that was more or less between the two and stuck a pin in it.”

“Old school!” The Doctor nods, quietly impressed. “I love a bit of old school.”

“But Ryan, see, he didn’t really want to be involved. He just said ‘Do what you like’. So I thought I’d take him at his word for once.”

Her face darkens a little. “I don’t want to drive a wedge between you two.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. He had a bit of a sulk, but he got over it. Said it wasn’t really her anyway, and that he’d mark it in his own way.”

“Is that why he’s gone off with Yas?”

“They’re out somewhere. They said to pick ’em up when we’re done.”

“Couldn’t you…?” the Doctor eyes the urn, balanced delicately on the console. “I mean, couldn’t you take half each?”

Graham shakes his head. “You know, you’re the most brilliant person I’ve ever met,” he says. “But you really haven’t got a clue how these things work, have you?”

The Doctor shoots a doleful smile. “Apparently not.”

* * * * *

There are no police boxes left in Ilkley. There is a pub, which used to do a decent roast; it sits opposite the church, suited locals spilling into the lounge on a Sunday: hymns and jukeboxes and collection plates and fruit machines. The sacred and the profane. Draperies and perfumeries jostle for space with the art galleries and gift shops; now and then a break will appear as the cobbles disappear into a dead end, someone’s trade entrance. The houses sit on well-kept streets, unimposing and unassuming piles of Yorkshire stone.

As they walk, Graham is doing mental gymnastics. He can’t quite fathom out why it is that Grace’s ashes shouldn’t be split into equal piles. There’s nothing illegal about the idea. He knows people who’ve done it, and he does not judge them. Grace exists as an idea, as a memory, but her corporeal self has been reduced to a collection of ceremonial atoms, carried like playground sand. Still. The idea doesn’t sit well with him, although he can’t express it in words. It is not a religious thing, merely a matter of principle. It exasperates him, in a way, that he cannot adequately explain this to the Doctor and that even if he could, she would be unable to understand.

Instead he says “Quiet. And why’s the pub closed?”

The Doctor is peering into the contents of a public bin: lager bottles, chip wrappings and yesterday’s paper telling yesterday’s news. Her brow furrows like an allotment trench. She looks left and right, frowning.

Graham sees her anxiety, although he does not see the bin. “What is it?”

“Should have checked the scanner. The TARDIS really doesn’t do short hops.”

“Yeah, but we’re still here, aren’t we? This is definitely the right place.”

She nods, although her eye is still on the newspaper. “We’ve jumped forward a little further than I’d have liked.”

“I get the feeling there’s a second half to that thought and you don’t wanna tell me.”

“Got it in one.” The Doctor takes him by the arm. “Come on. We’ve a hill to climb.”

* * * * *

Head southeast out of Ilkley and the landscape shifts. The trees are older; colossal firs and elms bordered by white slatted fences; schools and bungalows and the squat signs of estate agents. Then the houses become fewer, further apart and bigger, and the trees line the roads. The moor bursts forth to the right, while hills and valleys spill out to your left, unannounced.

“I could have sworn there was a song about this place,” says the Doctor as they walk. “Remember something, anyway.”

“It’s called On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at.”

“Bar tap?”

“Bar tat. Means going out without your hat on.”

“I don’t wear a hat. Not these days anyway.” The Doctor clasps at her hair, as if to check this is still the case. “Used to have loads. Funny how things change when you get older.” She stops to catch her breath, hand on hip, taking in the increasingly impressive views. “Or younger.”

“Well, anyway,” says Graham, his hand still clutched tight to the shopping bag housing Grace’s urn, “This bloke didn’t have his hat, and then he dies. And his body gets eaten by worms, which get eaten by ducks, which then get eaten by the bloke singing the song. So it’s basically a song about cannibalism.”

The Doctor concentrates, apparently processing. “What happens if you’re a vegetarian?”

* * * * *

The Cow and Calf sounds like it ought to be a pub. It is actually a rock formation, a lengthy outcrop of millstone, sitting atop Hangingstone Road and overlooking the moor. For some pilgrims it is their destination; for others a starting point. One formation stretches across the apex of the hill in a long misshapen spillage of stone and grass, a pasty that has crumbled in the oven. Nearby, squat by comparison – although still impressive – is the calf, perched almost precariously, like a cartoon boulder, waiting to tip agonisingly forwards onto an unsuspecting coyote.

The Cow and Calf is also a pub, although this is further up the road, and it is shut.

Now there are sprinklings of rock amongst the grass, flat stone walls and clumps of weed. Doves keeping a chattering vigil over unhatched eggs, hidden from the absent hikers. Clefts and crevices and piles of shingle.

“Oh, look,” says the Doctor, trying not to look pained. “A quarry.”

“It’s supposed to look like a calf sitting with her mother,” says Graham. “We did it at primary school. According to local legend there was a giant who had a barney with his wife and then split the rock in half as he was running away from her.”

“A Geryon, actually, from the Mylanx cluster. And it was more than an argument. She was trying to kill him!”

“And you know this how?”

A sheepish look. “I was their marriage counsellor.”

He feels a hunch building. “Grace once told me there was a UFO sighting here. 1980s. Anything to do with you?”

“No comment.”

* * * * *

The two of them climb to the summit and the world is spread like a ruffled blanket: in front, Ilkley nestles in the valley like a crab in a rockpool; to their left, West View Park and, somewhere beyond, the canals of Silsden; facing due east, the lights of Otley and the rim of the hills at its borders. The National Park draws the tourists like flies to an abandoned picnic, but even the clicks of a thousand smartphones have their benefits, and the land is still unspoilt and undeveloped. Graham never tires of vistas like these, even when he has seen a dozen offworld mountains and baked in the heat of vast purple alien suns. Essex was his childhood, but Yorkshire has become his home, something no amount of glacial palaces or endless tropical beaches will ever be able to quench.

Later, he will wonder why it was so quiet.

The Doctor is standing on the Calf, hands on hips. “Will this do?”

“Yeah, it’s as good a place as any.” Graham looks behind him; the top of the Cow is tempting but he can feel the creak in his joints and doubts he can climb any higher. The wind whips in from the north-east, reddening faces and billowing the tales of coats, bringing with it the tales of old fishermen from Staithes, the clacking claws in the dripping lobster pots, and the scent of freshly-plundered haddock.

He reaches into the bag, pulling out the urn. He will have to face the right way, or risk a re-enactment of The Big Lebowski. It is a favourite film, but there are some truths better confined to fiction.

“So what now?” asks the Doctor. She is seated a couple of yards away, boots dangling over the edge. “Are you supposed to say something?”

“Yeah.” Graham regards the blackness of the urn, glinting in the sunlight of early April. It is the colour of grease, intricately crafted, he suspects, for ergonomic consideration as well as aesthetics. It feels comfortable, weighted but not excessively heavy, solid but movable. He begins, carefully, to twist the lid, screwing counter-clockwise, feeling the scrape of ceramics. Besides the wind, it is the only sound he can hear.

The lid removed. Graham hands it to the Doctor, who has joined him: she turns it over in her hand, admiring the workmanship but also testing, he suspects, for flaws or archaeological interest. Ever the scientist. He is almost amused. She becomes suddenly aware of him staring at her, and stops, almost-but-not-quite-embarrassed, pocketing the lid in her raincoat. “Sorry. Miles away. Go on.”

Graham looks at the open urn, and then at the hills. He remembers coming up here as a younger man, that breathless climb with old friends. Kendal mint cake and hot coffee. He remembers other climbs with the Doctor: the hot sands of Desolation filling his boots; the hills of eastern Pakistan; the cliffs down at Penzance. Was there a conscious moment when he decided that the journey was more fun than the destination; when travel became the point? Was it after he’d left? Or before?

His mind, he realises, is not on the job, and desperately, he tries to think about his wife.

“Grace – ” he begins.

The Doctor stands, patient. Graham tries to read her and cannot.

“Did you ever lose someone?” he says after a moment. “I mean I know you said you did, back when we first met. But I never pressed you for the details, ‘cos I never felt like I should.”

She waits, allowing the silence so that he may fill it.

“No, what I mean is – ” Graham fumbles his words like a toddler with a football. “Did you ever lose someone the way I did? You know. Prematurely?”

“More than I can count,” she replies, and Graham nods; it is the answer he expected. “Well. Not really. I never stop counting.”

“How many?”

She gives him a look, which Graham interprets – correctly, as it turns out – as I’m not answering that one.

“Some young, some old,” the Doctor continues with a sigh, by way of deflection. “Some you’d call worthy sacrifices, if there is such a thing. People giving themselves to save the universe, or just to save my life. Others…” She breaks off in mid flow, looks out at the landscape. “Others were just needless.”

“And Grace? Where would you file that?”

The Doctor doesn’t answer.

“It’s no fun,” says Graham finally. “Being the one who carries on. Because every planet we land on, every new sky we get to see, all I can think of is how she might react. Which ones she’d like or which ones she’d hate. What she’d think of the locals; whether I’d act differently or do something differently, because of something she said. She loved it when it rained; I ever tell you that? So that time we were on the planet of the rain gods – what was it called?”

“The Planet of the Rain Gods,” she replies, matter-of-factly. “They don’t have much imagination.”

“Yeah, there – well, she’d have loved that. And then I get to thinking that maybe she wouldn’t, because of all the other stuff that was going on. And I realise that maybe I didn’t know her as well as I thought. And it…”

He breaks off.

“It frustrates me that we had so little time together,” Graham says when he has gathered his thoughts. “Because then I could have got to learn all this stuff.”

“I know.” The Doctor is nodding. “Really, I do. But sometimes second-guessing is all you have. That’s the way the universe works. It’s not charted or pre-ordained. It’s this great big ball of cosmic fluff; there’s no plan. There are some things you can change, some you can’t. But when it comes to life and death…no one gets to decide that. Not even I can. All we have to decide,” she concludes, “is what to do with the time that is given us.”

That final sentence rings like a bell in Graham’s pop culture repository. “Tolkien?”

“Me, actually,” she says, slightly abashed. “He was blocked. That was a fun afternoon. We made scones.”

Something else has just occurred to Graham, something he feels he ought to address. “Thing is, though, you’re a time traveller. I know that people die, and you can’t necessarily change that, but can’t you…you know, can’t you cheat? Pop back and have extra days when they were still around?”

“I could. But I don’t. I mean if nothing else it’s dishonest; it’s like cheating on the lottery.” The Doctor looks momentarily distracted; Graham files this part of the exchange for future reference. “It’s also incredibly dangerous, because then you’re crossing timelines and that’s where the web of time is at its thinnest.”

She pauses as if for dramatic effect. “You have to be really careful then. You never know what you’ll unleash.”

“So you never did it?”

“Once or twice. And even then I kept my distance. Or tried to. Not always successfu- anyway, doesn’t matter. Death is closure, Graham. However it comes, it’s a door you don’t want to open again.” The Doctor’s face is a mask. “I learned that the hard way.”

Graham nods, and the Doctor turns to him, sharply. “Please don’t ask me to do it. Ever.”

“I won’t,” says Graham.

“Good.” The two of them stand there, Graham helpless. What left now for his eulogy? What could he say that he hadn’t said at the funeral, the chapel bustling with friends and relatives, his grandson brooding and sombre? Had he hoped for some new insight, some growth of character, some unearthed perspective that came from travelling? Certainly he feels different, more whole somehow. So why can’t he find the words?

“That’s typical of you, love,” he can hear Grace chuckling. “Always worrying too much.”

Graham turns his head; she is not standing on the Calf, any more than she haunts a Norwegian cabin or the house they shared on Shrewsbury Road. There is a soundtrack of quotes that plays constantly in his head; it’s simply a question of turning off the mute button.

“I feel like Ryan should be here for this,” he says eventually.

“I was wondering when you’d get there,” says the Doctor, with a smile.

* * * * *

They go down. The early afternoon sun warms the pavements, and their footsteps echo with clatters on the cobbled stone. The larks are making song in the beeches and oaks, while cats prowl along crumbling walls like skulking prison guards. The urn jostles back and forth in Graham’s bag, the ashes of his late wife still tossing back and forth inside it. It has been agreed that they will do this another day.

“Shame the pub’s closed,” Graham mutters as they round the corner of Church Street and into Bridge Lane, where the TARDIS is parked. “I could murder a pint.”

“Come on. We’ll pick up the others and then I’ll take you for lunch. Somewhere that does pizza. I love pizza.”

“By take you for lunch, you mean one of us is buying, right?”

“Graham!” The Doctor pretends to be affronted; he sees through her like a layer of clingfilm. “What do you take me for?”

“Someone who never pays. But listen, thanks for today. Even though we didn’t do anything, at least…” He lets the sentence trail.

“Well, I’m always up for a stroll,” says the Doctor, who is not keen to get personal, at least not just now. “And hey, if you’re still stuck for a location you can always stick another pin in the map.”

“Nah. I think I’ll know it when I see it.”

“Suit yourself.” She takes out her screwdriver and does an atmospheric reading. A warning light pings. “Dang it! Left the oven on. We’ll probably have to fumigate the kitchen, again.”

“Doc – ” He stops, and looks her in the eye. “Seriously, why’s it so quiet?”

“Another time,” she says, meaning it.

He thinks once more about Grace: the ceramic nonsense of the urn, carrying something which is both his and wife and not his wife. Decades reduced, quite literally, to a cinder. The strangeness of carrying her in a shopping bag, the way he still carries her in his heart and his head. How much of memory, he wonders, is rooted in things like this? Where does the soul live, after the body has gone? Is that why old possessions take on so much meaning? Do we use them as houses, real estate for the dead?

The Doctor lingers at the door of the TARDIS; Graham thinks she looks sad. The mouth droops a little, the eyes a locked window onto some ill-remembered misdeed, or something else entirely.

“Anything you wanna get off your chest?”

There is a small, almost indiscernible intake of breath: body languge for pull yourself together, Doctor. “Come on. Pizza. And then….yeah. Somewhere else.”

The door latches shut. Then there is the sound of keys on piano wire, and the blue box fades and vanishes, and soon it is as if it had never been there.

Photos by Dave Noonan and Kreuzschnabel.

Categories: Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Thursday

  1. Wow, that’s quite something. You’ve really captured their voices and mannerisms. I could picture and “hear” the whole thing vividly. Thanks for sharing this!

    • reverend61

      Thank you for your kind words! This story has a very personal connection for me at the moment, for reasons I won’t unpack, and the writing process carried a certain catharsis. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Oh this is so touching and lovely. I can see every moment as I read. Thank you!!!

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