I was going to open this post with an explanation concerning the story you’re about to read. I swiftly abandoned the idea when I realised that I was basically just describing the text, and there’s nothing worse than having someone summarise the contents of a piece of fiction rather than letting it unfold itself as the author originally intended. In many ways it’s a shame, because it was good prose – still, I’ve consigned it to the Fiction Collection page, available elsewhere on this blog.
This particular one came about because over at The Doctor Who Companion we’ve been working on our first ever Christmas Annual – dedicated to the idea of companions and their seasonal escapades. The whole thing is available in PDF form, and in it you’ll find stories about the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, Bill and Heather, and even the Master. Do have a look; if nothing else it’ll give you something to do while we’re all waiting for ‘Revolution of the Daleks’.
Anyway, here’s mine. Cast your mind back, constant reader – all the way back to 2011…
Rory thinks: This will be the last year.
He looks out. The tail end of the winter sunlight has bled away, leaving the sky a deep Prussian blue, like the cloth of a military uniform. Somewhere beyond the exosphere, there are stars, although the house is in a well-lit terrace and you can’t really see them. Rory scratches his head to think that he might, at some point, have visited some of those stars, or at least their nearest neighbours. The man from Leadworth, skipping across the universe in a double heartbeat. Not to mention his other life, half-remembered and best forgotten: 2000 years of plastic solitude, hiding behind a locked door.
In his quieter moments he allows the concept to overwhelm him. And then there is a snap and he is back in the room. In his head, he can hear the Doctor. Don’t be ridiculous, Rory. That’s Iota Trianguli. I’d never take you there; they worship carrots.
He still remembers his encounter with the octopus barbers of Cirrus Minor; how they’d crooned in Gaelic while they snipped and trimmed. He had only gone in to ask for directions, but there had been a cultural misunderstanding and the next thing he knew he was being suckered to a plastic chair. Walking back to the blue box, where the others were waiting, under the twilight of a topaz yellow sun. They had offered sympathy and condolence, and then hidden all the mirrors.
Amy is much better at this stuff, he thinks to himself.
Rory has always felt two chapters behind, as if the Doctor and Amy were discussing plot points he was yet to reach. There are conversations about the travels they had without him, in the days – weeks? months? – before they started travelling together, the failed attempts at piloting the TARDIS, the bedroom with its matching Transformers quilts and electric train set. And then they were here, and the chapter began anew, and still he often feels as if there are pages he has neglected to read.
From the next room: laughter, the sound of Eric Morecambe menacing Arthur Lowe with a replica pistol. Then applause, and the familiarity of Bring Me Sunshine. Rory would quite like to be watching it, but he is keeping an eye on the stuffing.
Amy enters from the shed, carrying something metallic and roughly cylindrical. “This the one?”
“We have more than one blowtorch?”
“I found three. I think two of them may not be ours.” She rests the one she’s carrying on the kitchen worktop. “So. How does this improve the pudding?”
“Caramelisation. It’s like doing a crème brulee.” Rory picks up the blowtorch, dusting it with the sleeve of his cardigan. “I saw it on YouTube.”
Amy purses her lips very slightly and gives him the fish-eye. “Just don’t set fire to the kitchen. You know. Again.”
Rory feels his own eyes involuntarily roll. He puts down the torch and goes back to the cutlery drawer. Pulls out two knives, two forks, two spoons. The cutlery glints by the light of the kitchen.
He hesitates, looking over at the table. Then back at Amy, who has just finished pouring herself another glass of Shiraz. “Are we – ?”
She looks over at him, at the silverware in his hand. “What? Oh. Yeah. Definitely!”
It is a tonal shift from confusion to incredulity, managed in four words. Communication failures are the loose tiles in the marital roof, he has always thought, and this is one of them. He broaches the matter every Christmas. For Amy, it is a question that need never be asked. But they have never really resolved this, and thus it lingers, hanging in the air like an invisible stalactite, made of glass.
Rory reaches into the drawer, rummages, and pulls out another set. He sucks in his teeth.
“I can hear you doing that.”
She does not look round. Rory sighs. “I just – ”
“What? I mean, he’s our friend.”
“Yeah, and he never shows up. Because he thinks we think he’s dead.” Rory takes a split second to process that sentence, checking it for coherence. He decides that it works, despite being somewhat haphazard. Later he will decide that this is probably how Amy views him.
“Except that River knows we know. And she’ll tell him. And he probably told her knowing that she’d tell us, eventually. So he didn’t tell us because he knew she would, probably because he told her not to. Hey.” She flips the tea towel she has been using over her shoulders as if hoisting a knapsack. “It’s what he does, isn’t it?”
Rory has not been this confused since the poison scene in The Princess Bride. It pops into his head now, fully formed. He says, “Right.”
Amy sighs; it is a hand-thrown-to-the-air sigh, which is never a good one. “I know you think it’s pointless, but I’m not giving up.”
Is it pointless? Rory muses on this as he polishes the cutlery, fetching an extra plate from the cupboard to warm with the others. They have waited for the Doctor’s return for years; for some reason Amy always expects him at Christmas, “Because it’s the most inconvenient time, and so that’s exactly when he’ll show up”. He pulls at the oven door and then slides the plate inside: there is the scrape of glazed earthenware. The same ritual since Demon’s Run, since they got this house, since a parallel anomaly that he can no longer fully remember. Every December. This will be their third.
“I don’t like to see your hopes – I don’t know. Dashed. Every year,” he tells her.
“Don’t make this all about me. Besides, it’s Christmas. Christmas is about tradition.”
Rory thinks: So is seppuku.
Rory says: “I just don’t understand why anyone would voluntarily choose to have dinner with their in-laws.”
“Well, maybe not yours.” She tips him a wink; Rory is thrown by the sudden playfulness. A smile momentarily crosses his lips – The Princess Bride is back, the flirting of Buttercup and Westley.
Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he jolts at a repeated word: inconceivable, its dual meaning spiked with black venom. The other thing they do not discuss.
Rory looks away. Amy says “Is that spoon going on the table? Or do you – do you just like holding it?”
The sentences are losing cohesion, which means that Amy is more upset than she is prepared to admit. Rory is suddenly struck with something he will later determine was guilt; in the moment, it feels rather more like a desire to hug his wife.
He puts down the spoon, and then puts his arms around her, trying to somehow press out the anger, squeezing it away like the juice of an orange. Amy buries her face in the wool of his cardigan. It is only the side of her face, indicating a partial acquiescence to his affection as opposed to the total surrender he would prefer, but it will do for a start.
Amy pulls away, seethes. “Who! Who does it today? They’re supposed to show up on cosy winter evenings when you’ve just finished wrapping the presents. Bit of Holly and the Ivy, mince pie, and then on to the next house.” She is storming across the kitchen; now she reaches up to a shelf, pulling down the yellow plastic gun that is usually kept in reserve for next door’s cat.
The sink tap is turned on, and then off again. From the lounge they can hear the theme to Pointless, and then a second knock. Amy’s battle cry echoes as she marches down the hall. “If that is more carol singers, I have a water pistol!”
There is a Jewish tradition at the Passover Seder: an empty place left for Elijah, longed for and anticipated. And there are other stories, too, of unexpected stars, of unlikely gifts received with bewildered gratitude, of barren women who eventually bore prophets. There are choices and consequences and the two do not always match. We’re all stories in the end, he can remember Amy telling him once, although she couldn’t recall quite where she’d heard it. He wonders how this one will finish, and what choices he might have to make, and whether the two of them will ever be on the same page.
Rory wanders out of the kitchen to see who was at the door.
You can download the 2021 Doctor Who Companion Annual here.