Figuratively speaking, Harriet had cold feet.
It was October, and while there was a nip in the air there was still a bit of warmth left in the Hampshire sun. The days may have been shortening, as the year performed its merry dance with the gusto of a drunken relative at a sixtieth birthday ceilidh, but you couldn’t exactly call it cold. It was more the expectation of cold, an opening act for the chill to come, as if autumn were in the middle of an acoustic set before abruptly vanishing into the wings just in time for the main event.
Whenever she actually thought about it, Harriet decided the whole notion that the changing day lengths were something to be remarked upon was quietly ridiculous. It would start in late June – right after the equinox – with the words “Well, that’s it now, the nights will start drawing in”. The process took six months, through summer beach holidays and festival season and the apple collecting and the ridiculous Halloween costumes that were in the shops on the first of September every year without fail, through fireworks and John Lewis Christmas adverts until just a few particularly short days before the bank holiday. The return journey, back to hazy afternoons and thundery barbecues, took another six months, rounding out the year quite nicely. The nights were always growing progressively longer or progressively shorter, and there was never a time when they weren’t. The whole system was perpetually in flux. So why even mention it?
No: Harriet’s cold feet had nothing to do with temperature, but she always thought it was important to denote the difference. She looked down at her actual feet, encased in a pair of ridiculous white shoes that she had never worn before – save ten minutes’ breaking in the week before the wedding – and would likely never wear again, unless she and Nick wound up visiting Ascot, or somewhere like it. And seeing as neither of them were the betting sort – “Gamble responsibly?” Nick would snort at the TV ads, before declaring it an oxymoron – this was probably not going to happen.
Harriet smoothed down an imaginary crease in her dress, and was gazing in the mirror when the door opened. Her mother, all red velvet and feathers. The hat would probably get stuck in a sliding door. That would be a story and a half. Harriet found herself chuckling inwardly at the thought, although she kept her face as pokerish as she possibly could.
“I’m about ready.” The woman bustled about the room, shutting windows and turning off the lamps. “Took me nearly fifteen minutes to straighten the plumage on this thing. Still, we can go now.”
“Because, of course, it’s all about you.”
“Oh, don’t start.”
“I really don’t want to start anything. We’re late enough as it is.”
“He’ll wait.” Her mother shrugged. “Least, he will if he’s got any sense.”
“Mum…” Harriet leaned on one arm, tentatively.
The eyebrows narrowed. “Oh dear. I know that look. Fine, what is it?”
“Why am I marrying him?”
“Because he’s adequately handsome, reasonably educated, and financially solvent. And more to the point, he puts up with you.”
“I think he’s terrified of you,” said Harriet.
“Good. That’s precisely the way it should be. Now come on – ” and her mother tugged her off the bed with one arm, re-adjusting her hat with the other – “before the salmon starts to decompose.”
* * * * *
Nick was on his penultimate fingernail – the rest chewed down to rags – when the vicar opened the door to the vestry. “Here. Finally.”
Nick was already a bundle of nerves and took exception to his tone. “We’re not paying you by the hour, you know.”
“I wish you were. I’d make a fortune. Are you set?”
“Give me a moment.” The groom stood, adjusting his corsage. “Where’s Bill?”
“Your best man is outside, placating a few guests who are even more anxious than you are. A moment ago he was reassuring your elderly aunt that he can get her back to the hospice in time for Strictly.”
“That’ll be Iris,” muttered Nick. “Never mind ballroom dancing, she’s a complete drama queen.”
“Look,” said the vicar, crossly. “Do you want to get married or not? Only I’ve got another wedding this afternoon and a sermon to write for tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s the question.” Nick stared through the frosted glass that was the vestry window, the exterior beyond an unreadable collage of blacks and greens and greys. “I mean, I thought I did. So did Harriet. But lately it just seems like it’s – ”
* * * * *
“ – too soon,” Harriet was saying. “You know, it was three months. Three! And he was drunk. And so was I, and one thing led to another and we wound up visiting the outlet centre for an engagement ring because it was late night shopping.”
Her mother shut the door of the rental. “And they say romance is dead.”
She leaned through the window. “Park it in the short stay and come back. We don’t want to get ticketed.”
The driver nodded and pulled away from the kerb. Harriet stared at the busy road, counting the cars. Red. Green. Silver. Blue. Another silver. The sky was a rich azure, pockmarked with dark grey clouds, the biggest of which threatened to block out the sun. Harriet wondered if it would rain, and then wondered whether that would be appropriate.
Her mother was stabbing at the screen of an ageing smartphone.
“What are you doing?”
“Just checking in on Foursquare.”
“Nobody uses that any more.”
“I do.” Her mother glared at her frostily. “You can use the thirty seconds’ breathing space to get yourself presentable.”
Harriet turned away – and almost collided with a man in his thirties, wearing a long brown coat, who was pelting up the street in a tremendous hurry. Harriet tottered on her heels, struggling to keep herself from falling. “Hey! Watch it!”
The man in the coat turned and gave her the briefest of apologetic waves. “Sorry!”
Harriet seethed as he disappeared round a corner, and then turned her attention back to the present.
“The thing is,” she said, as her mother picked up the train on her dress and moved it away from the gutter into which she’d absent-mindedly allowed it to trail, “I just don’t know if he’s the sort of person who’d jump in front of me to stop a bullet. How can I marry him not being sure of that?”
“What a ridiculous cogitation.” Her mother straightened her jacket, which had wandered skewiff in the car. “Who gets the chance to know a thing like that? Who, apart from the military or people who meet in those ridiculous films your father always enjoyed? Nobody.” She had her hands on her hips now, which meant she was both attentive and cross. “That’s who.”
Harriet sighed. “Still, you know what I me-”
“No. I don’t. I never do. Your mind works on a different level to me, and I’ve accepted it. I accepted it long ago. But I don’t understand you. Here you are, minutes away from the chance to be happier than I ever was, and we’re standing in the street discussing…”
She fumed. “Keanu flippin’ Reeves.”
“I just – ”
“Yes. You just. As in just now. Why couldn’t we have had all this out in the car?”
“BECAUSE YOU WERE ON YOUR BLOODY MOBILE TRYING TO REBOOK THE OSTEOPATH! ON A SATURDAY!”
“AND I WOULDN’T HAVE HAD TO IF YOU HADN’T – ”
“Excuse me. Ladies?” said a polite voice.
The two-person bridal party ceased its affectations, and turned in the direction of the voice: the best man was standing by the church doorway, trying to look casual and not quite managing it.
“Are you ready to get married?” said Bill. “Only the caretaker forgot to adjust the heating this morning and they’ve had to keep the doors open, and I think everyone inside can hear you.”
* * * * *
Harriet had misjudged the length of the church. This meant she was already at the front while the organist was still halfway through Haydn’s Trumpet Voluntary, which meant that she had to stand next to her husband-to-be for an embarrassing length of time while everyone waited for him to finish.
Nick used the time to pay compliments. “You look amazing.”
She kept her eyes fixed straight ahead. “Thanks.”
“I mean it,” Nick said. “It’s just the most incredible dress I’ve ever – ”
“I know,” Harriet hissed. “You said. Thank you.”
“Right. I’m sorry, I’m just nervous.”
The organist finished with a flourish. A couple of people clapped, which was frankly awkward, as it wasn’t generally done, and the vicar made his displeasure known by glowering at them.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began – ‘Dearly beloved’ having gone out of style round about the time Hugh Grant was caught in a BMW with a prostitute – and that was about as far as he got before all the windows shattered.
* * * * *
The thing on the church carpet was reptilian in appearance, scaled and grimy, the shape of a horse and the size of a large rhino. Two human-length arms protruded from its front, in addition to the four legs upon which it was now crouching. A coral-coloured fin and two bulbous, empty eyes adorned its long, sleek head, while at the creature’s rear end a spiked tail lashed back and forth in front of the lectern.
Harriet was up on her feet, staring hard. Oddly her first thought had not been one of abject terror – although from the looks of her wedding guests there was plenty of that to go around in any case – but rather a scientific conundrum, namely how a single animal could have been responsible for the destruction of every window in the church when it had presumably come through just one. Her question was answered as the creature opened its mouth and roared – a piercing, ear-shattering noise that would surely have broken all the glass in the room had there been any more glass to break.
Harriet glanced over at Nick. He was standing next to her, his head lopsided, a look of utter incredulity plastered to his whitened face, as if he could not quite believe what he was seeing. His breathing had quickened and there was a rip in the shoulder of his jacket that was staining crimson where the glass had torn it, along with some of the flesh beneath. He seemed not to have noticed, and Harriet decided that this was probably not the time to bring it up.
“This is a dream,” Nick was muttering. “And I know it’s a dream, so I can wake up.”
“It’s not a dream,” Harriet said.
“I can wake up I can wake up I can – ”
“It’s not a bloody dream!” she snapped.
The creature was shaking bits of glass out of what Harriet assumed must be its mane. It whinnied (if that was the right word) and stamped. Then it reached out an arm and grabbed the vicar, who would very soon wish he’d got out of the way sooner.
“No!” was all the unfortunate clergyman had time to get out before the creature propelled him into a wall, whereupon he slumped to the floor with a dismal thud, then lapsing into silence.
Harriet looked around for her mother, who was cowering behind the organ. “Don’t just stand there!” she hissed, when they made eye contact. “Come and hide!” She was beckoning frantically, and the feathers in her hat were dusted with tiny shards of glass.
Harriet shook her head. “We’d never make it.”
The beast was directly in their path to the organ, and Harriet sensed – correctly, as it turned out – that any attempt to cross that path was liable to end in tears. She risked a glance at the congregation, who were in the process of either fainting, sobbing or running. She observed Bill running out into the street and away from the carnage that was presumably about to unfold, and felt a pang of annoyance, even though she’d never much liked him.
She turned to Nick. “What do we – ”
The church had a rear door; it led through to the vestry and the back exit and it was through this door that the newcomer arrived. He half ran, half fell through into the main body of the church, skidding to a halt in front of the creature, beholding it with something that resembled quiet and considered alarm, but not surprise. He was out of breath, although no sweat seemed to glisten across his forehead.
Harriet recognised his coat. It was the man in the street, the one with whom she had almost colli- no, wait a minute, the one who had almost collided with her. Now that he was standing there, she could see him properly. He looked to be in his late thirties, with dark spiked hair that rose from the top of an angular head. He was attractive but not threateningly so, well-defined and perhaps just a shade too thin. The coat swamped a pinstriped brown suit and necktie; on another day he wouldn’t look out of place selling houses in London, and for all Harriet knew that was what he did anyway.
“Sorry,” he said. “Hello.”
Something inside Harriet snapped. “Hello?” she echoed. “This – this thing comes through the window and nearly kills us, and still might, and all you can say is ‘Hello’?”
“Well, it’s a start,” said the man. “I mean, I was going to say ‘Is everybody all right?’, before you interrupted.”
“What is it?” said Harriet, indicating the monster, which seemed to be pacing up and down the width of the church, leering at her. “Is it something to do with you?”
“No. Well, kind of.” The stranger wore an expression that might have been construed as guilt. Harriet thought his eyes looked old, or at least older than the rest of him. “It got out.”
“Out of where?”
“Doesn’t matter. Listen.” He turned to her, staring hard – there was fear in those eyes, she noticed, or at least a quiet desperation. “You need to get everybody out of here now, so I can contain it.”
“Can’t you just take it away somewhere without people?”
The stranger seemed to consider this, before changing his mind. “Could, but no. Too risky. He seems to have stopped here for the moment. I think I need to subdue him before he moves again.”
“It’s a he, then?”
“Probably. I mean, the noisy ones generally are.”
“So we move, then.”
“Yes. And keep quiet about it. The more noise you make, the more – ”
“Harriet!” In the excitement she had almost forgotten her mother, who was still hissing beside the organ, although it was now less of a hiss and more an anguished squeak. “Who on earth is this travelling salesman and why isn’t he doing anything to help?”
“Excuse me?” the stranger addressed her in the way you might expect a disgruntled maths teacher to address a disobedient child. “Helping is top of the list, thank you very much, if you’ll kindly stop panicking and let me get on with it.”
The woman bristled. “Just who are you, anyway? And what the hell is this thing?”
“I’m the Doctor. And this is a Myrka. Nasty things, usually bred for war. And when they’re cornered they get agitated, so I’d appreciate it if you could just calm – ”
The monster reared and rallied. The head threw back and it gave another roar, rising onto its hind legs, which were flailing wildly in mid-air.
Too late, Harriet realised that when they came down, they would most likely land on her head.
* * * * *
When she thought about it later, Harriet recollected that things seemed to happen in slow motion. First there was that horrid pause as the legs stopped flailing and began their downward descent, then there was a cry of “NO!”, and then she felt herself being pushed out of the way as Nick suddenly barged in front of her, standing directly in the path of the descending hoof as it came down onto his temples.
Harriet didn’t have time to scream, and then Nick was falling, falling and clutching the top of his head, but – what was this? – he actually didn’t look too badly hurt, and now the monster was flailing wildly from some sort of aggravation it was evidently experiencing, and then it turned with a crash and landed directly on top of the organ which had thankfully been vacated just seconds before, its tail three inches from Harriet’s mother’s chest.
There was a sudden and eerie silence.
The dust settled. The congregation got to their feet, shaky and upset and still trying to work out exactly what was going on. Harriet’s mother came out from behind the organ and ran over to embrace her daughter. Harriet herself was kneeling over the unconscious Nick, trying to work out if he was in fact unconscious or actually dead.
The man called the Doctor was brushing his coat.
“Let’s have a look,” he said, dropping to a squat and pulling a small tube-shaped device from his pocket – Harriet took it to be some sort of multi-purpose thermometer or torch – and shining it into Nick’s temples, once he’d rolled back the eyelids. “Brilliant! Don’t worry, he’s just unconscious.”
Harriet blinked away her tears, stunned. “He’s – he’s not – ”
“No,” said the Doctor, drawing out the sound of the word and drawing in his breath at the same time, giving it a warm, gutteral emphasis it arguably didn’t deserve. “The hoof clipped the side of his head. Just a scratch. He’s gonna have a whopper of a headache when he wakes up, though.”
Harriet shook her own head. “I was so sure it was going to crush him.”
“It nearly did. ‘Til I threw it off balance.”
“With this.” The Doctor waved the thermometer at her. “Sonic feedback resonance cascade. Inaudible to humans; gave the poor old Myrka here the fright of his life. Bit of a last resort – I always find it rather cruel, mostly because they usually lose a bit of their hearing. But we were out of options. It was that or watch it crush your fiancé.”
Despite everything, Harriet smiled. “You saved him.”
The Doctor gave her a meaningful look. “And he saved you.”
Harriet was still processing the implications of this when she glanced over at the Myrka. “What about that? Is it dead?”
“No, just stunned,” said the Doctor. “I’ve got a few friends who can come and take care of him, get him to a place where he can’t be harmed. And where he can’t harm anyone else, of course,” he added, quickly.
“Just who are you?” Harriet’s mother demanded. “Coming in here with your weird gadgets and your mysterious friends and – ”
From the far wall of the church there was a groan.
“Sylvia,” said the Doctor, clearly anxious to kill two birds with one stone, “Go and check on the vicar, will you?”
Harriet’s mother bristled. “My name’s not Sylvia.”
The Doctor shrugged. “Well, if the cap fits.”
* * * * *
A few minutes later, when the men in uniforms had come with their trucks and taken the Myrka away to what Harriet assumed was some sort of heavily-armoured paddock, they were all sitting at the front of the church, recovering. The guests were subdued, a damp cocktail of relief and quiet reverence, as if they had been privy to something terrible which was now over without anyone fully understanding what had happened.
The Doctor was applying a bandage to Nick’s head, and dabbing it with alcohol. “Sorry,” he said, as the groom winced. “Haven’t done this for a while. Bit out of practice.”
“I thought you said you were a doctor,” Nick said.
“Well, yeah, but not of medicine. Though…” He paused, staring off into the distance in reflection. “Actually, no. I did do medicine. Glasgow, 1880s. Can’t remember.”
Harriet glanced over at the vicar, who was sitting on a plastic chair with a cup of tea. “What about him?”
“He’ll be fine,” announced her mother, who had bustled over with a bunch of towels. “He doesn’t even seem to have any concussion, though I’ve told him to get it checked out. After that we’ll need to set another date – ”
“No we won’t,” said Harriet. “We’ll give him a few minutes, then we’ll carry on.”
Her mother looked at her, speechless. “You can’t be serious.”
Harriet got to her feet. “You know what, Mum? For the first time in a while I think I actually am.”
“But – not like this! Surely not like this? And don’t you want to think about thi-”
“Mum.” Harriet’s voice was calm, self-assured, decisive. “There’s no thinking. We’re getting married, and we’re getting married now.”
She turned to Nick. “That is, if you still want to.”
Nick grinned. It was a grin that abruptly faded when the simple matter of logistics kicked in. “What about Bill?”
“I’ve tried getting hold of him,” said Harriet. “But he jumped on a non-stop to Plymouth, and he won’t be back for ages.”
“He was useless anyway,” Nick shrugged. “But we can’t have a wedding without a best man.”
They both looked at the Doctor.
“Oh, all right,” he said.
* * * * *
Rings or no rings, everyone agreed it was a lovely ceremony – even if some of the photos were a trifle unorthodox. What was more the hotel had managed to keep everything on ice and thus the fears about decaying salmon were unfounded.
The Doctor was currently in shovelling a forkful of it into his mouth. Harriet had insisted he come along. “You’ve saved our lives,” she had said. “It’s the least we can do.”
The Doctor had looked momentarily indecisive. “I should…I mean, I should really…the Ood, they keep…hmm. Oh, why not?” he had replied after the sort of dithering that would have impressed even Hugh Grant. “Really not my thing, but another day can’t hurt. It’s all relative.”
Harriet hadn’t understood any of this, but there were a lot of things she hadn’t understood about today, and she was coming to the conclusion – as she crossed the floor to where the Doctor was standing – that it probably wasn’t a bad thing. “Enjoying the food?” she said.
The Doctor put down his plate. “It’s delicious,” he said, wiping an oily mouth clean with a napkin. “Haven’t had salmon like this since Greenland, 1808. Coronation of Frederick the sixth. Lovely man. Very fond of darts.”
“Right,” Harriet, wondering how she was supposed to respond to these ersatz monologues.
The Doctor glanced over at her. “Are you all right?”
“I am, actually,” said Harriet. It was partly the wine, but her heart felt lighter, while her head was gradually vacuuming away the fog. “Just between you and me, I’d been having second thoughts. And then…you know. Gone.”
The Doctor nodded. “Speaking of which, where is he?”
Harriet surveyed the dimly-lit function room, and spotted Nick, in the middle of an intense conversation with a visibly upset pensioner. “Over there,” she said. “I think he’s trying to placate Aunt Iris. She’s upset about missing Strictly. Started half an hour ago.”
The Doctor appeared to be formulating some sort of idea in his head. “Well, I could…you know. I could probably do something about that.”
Harriet’s eyebrow arched. “How?”
The Doctor scratched his ear. “I’ve got a time machine.”
Harriet nearly spat out her wine, but managed at the last minute to swallow. “You know the weird thing? I actually believe that.”
“Just a small number, mind you, and doesn’t always work properly, but I could probably drop her off, say, an hour ago.”
“Yes. But you can’t tell anyone. It’s not something I do except in dire emergencies, which seems to apply here. Still, we can’t let it get out. I’ll never live it down.” The Doctor sighed. “Look at me, going soft in my old age.”
“But hold on.” Harriet’s face darkened. “If you could go back in time, couldn’t you just…I don’t know. Nip back and fix things? So all the stuff earlier won’t happen?”
“Doesn’t work like that.” The Doctor swigged his lemonade. “I can’t go back along my own timeline. Creates a paradox. Seven shades of hell break loose. Anyway. When you think about it, would you really have wanted this afternoon to be any different?”
Harriet thought about it and decided she probably didn’t.
“But if you’re from the future,” she continued, “which you must be, seeing as you have a time machine, do you know about us? I mean what happens to us?”
“Not offhand,” said the Doctor. “Big universe, lots of people. Can’t keep track of everyone.”
“But you could find out.”
“Theoretically,” he replied. “But I’m not going to.”
Harriet nodded, a little disappointed and also relieved.
“You wanted to know if you lived happily ever after,” the Doctor said, probing her thoughts. “Didn’t you?”
Harriet shrugged, and gave a small smile.
“Nobody does, you know. Not really. But you make the best of whatever you’re given. And you promise each other that that’ll be enough. And then, whenever things are bad, you push on.”
Harriet’s smile widened. Yes. That would do.
“Speaking of pushing on,” the Doctor said, putting down his glass, “I really should be making a move. Places to see, planets to liberate, that sort of thing. I’ll go and collect your aunt.”
“Nick’s aunt,” Harriet corrected him. “Listen, – ”
“Don’t thank me again,” said the Doctor, his hand up. “There’s really no need.”
“No, I was going to ask. What about you? Is there – ”
The Doctor smiled at her. It was the sort of smile that spoke volumes; it seemed to hide a wealth of sadness, of heartbreak and recollection and pushing on. There were stories, she sensed, that she would never get to hear, and she realised – in that moment, she finally realised – that they’d been in the presence of a man who was full of secrets, who played only the bare minimum of the cards he kept strapped to his chest, and that this sort of intervention, this breezing in and out of lives, was what he did every day.
“Good luck to you Harriet,” he said, and with a wink he was gone.
Harriet watched him leave, a straight-backed gentlemen pushing a wheelchair, disappearing as if he’d never really been there in the first place.
Nick joined her at the buffet table. “I’ve tried calming her down, but nothing doing,” he said. “I don’t know why they can’t stick iPlayer on a couple of the nursing home TVs.”
“I don’t think you need to worry,” said Harriet, gesturing at the departing Doctor. “It’s all in hand.”
She squeezed Nick’s palm. “And speaking of which,” she said, “I think you owe me a dance, my darling husband.”
Nick smiled. “It worked out in the end, didn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Harriet. “I think it did.”
“But there’s one thing I don’t understand.”
She looked at him, incredulous. “Only one?”
“Well. I mean, there’s a bunch of – but look, who was he? He waltzes in, there’s chaos, I get a whopping headache, then he’s off again, like he’s never been here. We didn’t even know his name.”
Harriet gave her new husband a kiss.
“Does it matter?”
For Emily, fifteen years after ‘I do’.