All around the cluttered cloisters, musty rooms and high, vaulted halls there was a deep and tangible hush. The only light in the virtually impenetrable gloom was of a peculiarly pellucid green, spilling out feebly from every heavy wooden door and misaligned stone. Everywhere, there was a terrible sense of stagnancy, imbuing the whole place with a fetid, neglected atmosphere, as though some great cathedral had been flooded by a brackish lagoon.
From out of the cobwebbed shadows emerged a little group of very old men, resplendent in their ornately decorated robes.
The least ancient of the group, a white-haired individual with piercing eyes and a down-turned, haughty mouth, lifted the hem of his robes as he detached himself from the others, sending little flurries of dust over the flagstones. He murmured a few words of apology to his comrades and melted away into the shadows.
After a time he came to a small door inset in the crumbling stonework. He looked about him, senses alert, and lifted his hands to grip the lapels of his robes. His twinkling eyes darted from side to side. It was time.
A man with a face like a deflating balloon, dressed in dark gold robes which were too big for him, crossed the corridor, mumbling happily to himself. The white-haired man pressed himself into a doorway until the fellow had passed. It wouldn't do to be discovered now.
When he was certain that he was alone, the old man opened the door with a spindly key and squeezed himself through into darkness.
Beyond the door was a flight of stone steps, which he descended nimbly, leading into a huge, ink-black, domed chamber.
Arranged in a row were eight featureless objects about the size of horse boxes, their dull grey surfaces tinged by the familiar underwater-green.
The white-haired man lifted the heliotrope robes from around his shoulders and let them slip to the floor. He steepled his bony fingers and looked up at the ceiling high above his head. What was the night like out there? It had been so long since he'd ventured outside, smelled fresh air, seen the first frosts, watched the pale silver and bronze leaves disappearing under melting snow…
But now all that would be different. It was time to go.
There was a noise from somewhere close by and the old man hastily unlocked one of the featureless grey boxes.
'I must be quick,' he muttered. 'Yes, I must be very, very quick.'
A look of profound sadness seemed to come over his wise old face as he gave the hall one more sweep of his searching gaze. Then, with a heavy sigh, he vanished inside the box and closed the door.
There was a raucous, grinding moan and, quite suddenly, the old man and his protesting grey box simply faded away.
For a long time the seven remaining boxes stood in silence with only the steady drip of the leaking roof to disturb the gloom. Then the man in the dark gold robes appeared in the doorway, tutting to himself. He regarded the seven boxes, and the space where the eighth had been, with some annoyance.
'Oh no, no,' he said. 'This really won't do at all.'
Perhaps the world was dreaming. Dreaming as it drifted like an exotic butterfly through those gossamer summers which seemed like they could never end, stretching pacific arms around its people under a billion-dollar blue sky. And there were those who said there'd never been a better time to be alive. Perhaps the world was dreaming …
Jack Prudhoe scratched his bristly chin and cleared his throat loudly. He was in no mood to argue. Standing in the draughty hall of his little house, he wearily ran a hand through his thinning hair and rattled the walking sticks which cluttered the umbrella stand.
'Are you listening to me?'
Win's voice stabbed at him like a needle. Jack kept his rheumy old eyes fixed on the umbrella stand. Had it always been like this? Dreary days. Arguments. Going to the pub. Coming back. Apologies. Another argument. Bed. Silence.
Jack looked at Win's angry, pinched face as she continued to berate him in a shrill monotone. Mouth like a horse's back side, he thought idly. Win's grey eyes flashed dangerously.
'Same old routine isn't it, Jack Prudhoe?'
Yes, he despaired, yes, yes. Same old bloody routine.
Jack selected his favourite walking stick. The one with the horse's head carved on it. The one Win had given him on their tenth anniversary. He buttoned up his heavy raincoat and eased his feet into a pair of Wellingtons. With two pairs of socks on they almost fit.
'Off you go to the pub to get tanked up. And not a thought for me, oh no. Well, I've had enough. Either you start facing up to your responsibilities… '
Jack didn't hear the rest. He lifted the latch on the solid front door and stepped out into the rain.
There was a dismal, slate-grey quality to the light which did nothing to lift his spirits. A wintry dusk was creeping remorselessly over the village in defiance of the early hour.
A short walk across the square stood The Shepherd's Cross, a pub in which Jack had been drinking, man and boy, for nearly fifty years. He nearly chuckled as he remembered his dad smuggling him his first pint.
The pub's comforting atmosphere of red flock wallpaper, old wood and frosted glass rarely failed to cheer him up. Except, perhaps, on bleak days like this one.
Jack nodded his hello to the landlord, Lawrence Yeadon, who stood drying glasses behind the long mahogany bar. Lawrence tossed the teatowel on to his shoulder and grinned. He was always grinning. Or whistling.
'Filthy weather,' he said cheerily. Jack grunted and looked Lawrence up and down, noting with disapproval the younger man's turtleneck sweater and fashionably exaggerated sideburns. Silly bugger was too old to be following trends.
Back in the days when the colliery was still open, Jack had been a good friend of young Lawrence, especially after he'd married such a pretty young lass as Mrs Cockayne's eldest and produced a son, Robin. But his wife's untimely death had left such a profound impression on Lawrence that he had virtually withdrawn from village life, becoming sullen and uncommunicative. However, after some years (much to everyone's relief), he pulled himself together, got the tenancy of the pub with little bother and married a lovely widow from York called Betty Harper.
These days, Lawrence was all sweetness and light. He and Betty had recently returned from a holiday in Jersey and were already planning their next excursion, rumoured to be a cruise on the new Queen Elizabeth II.
Lawrence grinned at Jack. The old man turned away thoughtfully. There was something about Lawrence which nagged at him. Perhaps he was just a bit too eager and cheerful to be true. And there had been a lot of gossip recently about how ill Betty was looking.
Jack shrugged off these thoughts, turned back to the bar, ordered a pint of mild and asked after Betty.
'Oh fine, fine,' said Lawrence, a little too quickly.
Jack sat down at a table and closed his eyes, listening to the gentle crackling of the fire. He was grateful that the recently installed jukebox (one of Lawrence's efforts to 'liven the place up a bit') had fallen silent. Honestly, the drivel people listened to nowadays. You couldn't tell the boys from the girls half the time.
Sipping his pint thoughtfully, Jack glanced into one of the shadowed corners where a hefty wooden and cast-iron table stood, its surface littered with sodden beer mats. It was in that corner sometime during the Great War (1916, wasn't it?) that he'd first seen Win. She and her mother had just arrived in Crook Marsham and moved into the old Shackleton house on Faraday Street. Win was such a beautiful woman in those days. Lovely thick auburn hair and soft, soft skin that seemed to shine…
'Can I get you girls a drink?' Jack had asked in a nervous voice. Win and her new friend Veronica Railton giggled into their hands. They were already feeling rather daring having gone into the pub unchaperoned. Jack looked down at the oversized uniform he'd been given and suddenly felt a fool. His army haircut was horribly severe and he felt self-conscious about his sticky-out ears. Veronica peered at him from behind her thick spectacles. Win's big eyes looked him up and down. She was wearing that red dress which her mother had made for her. It was always her favourite.
'Well?' said Jack. Veronica giggled again but Win held his gaze. 'There's something about a man in uniform,' she'd said quietly.
Always had spirit that one. So beautiful. So beautiful…
Jack Prudhoe shook himself out of his reverie and took another sip of his pint, leaving a creamy semicircle on his upper lip. His eyes strayed to the tatty Christmas decorations which Betty Yeadon had put across the bar only the other day.
His mind began to drift again. He and Win saying their farewells just before he was posted. Endless laughter and chatter. Going on trips over to Leeds and Ilkley Moor. Kissing by the falls at Haworth. And then parting. Jack waving to Win as she stood in that lovely red dress at the station. Waving as the steam from the engine enveloped her.
After that had come the worst time of Jack's life: foul and wretched war. Up to his knees in freezing water as star-shells blossomed overhead. Half his comrades slaughtered in that filthy mud. And then came the day he saw his best mate's head blown off and Johnny Hun put a bullet through Jack's chest, sending him home within the week. Home to Crook Marsham and his mum and dad. And home to Win, who had waited for him, despite the best efforts of the local lads.
The year after those university men came to the moor looking for old relics, Jack and Win finally tied the knot.
'We'll have a dozen kids,' he told her. 'And a house as big as Castle Howard. A garden full of roses, and chrysanths. Aye, you like chrysanths, don't you?'
She'd turned her big eyes to him and smiled warmly. 'Oh, Jack. What am I going to do with you?'
Jack turned back to his pint and rubbed the ribs which the bullet had smashed all those years ago. They still ached a bit in damp weather.
He sighed heavily. Sometimes he just couldn't believe that the Win he'd loved and the woman who was now such a thorn in his side were one and the same. They'd had their ups and downs, of course, like anybody else. One kiddie still-born. The other, named after his father, run down by a bus. Jack could see himself there even now, standing helplessly as the great, lumbering vehicle lurched around the corner. Then young Jackie running into the road. Time slowing around them, moving like treacle. That awful noise as the bus's brakes howled, and then Win, turning to him with such a look in those grey eyes. Accusing him. Little Jackie breathing his last on that rain-washed street and, perhaps, something inside Win quietly dying. The passing years became like a physical weight, pressing her down, breaking that rare spirit, transforming her into the stooped and bitter woman she now was. They'd never even left the village. Despite all those plans, all those promises…
Something caught Jack's eye as it flashed by the smoked glass of the pub window. He turned full around and his old neck wrinkled in the none-too-clean collar of his shirt.
A flash of red. There was something darting past the window, the smudged red of their clothes bobbing into view like a lone poppy seen through a curtain of fine rain.
Jack moved closer and peered through the little area of clear glass which spelt out the pub's name in big Victorian letters. There was a girl out there, dressed in a light summer frock. A red frock. Jack sensed its familiarity and something turned in his stomach.
And then there was a face at the window. Pressed against the smoked glass. A pale, lovely face with a halo of thick hair. The girl giggled lightly and was gone.
Jack stood up sharply, sending both table and beer crashing to the floor. Lawrence looked at him oddly.
The red blur began to diminish. Over towards the moor.
'Jack? Are you all right?'
Jack Prudhoe turned and his careworn face was full of wonder. He suddenly knew he didn't have much time.
'It's her, Lol,' he breathed. 'It's her!'
Jack let out a high, hysterical laugh and stumbled out of the door. Lawrence hastened after him.
'Jack! Your coat, man! You'll catch your death! Jack!'
The policeman and the old man are tired. Their faces, in tight close-up on the television screen, blurred by the crude film process. The policeman's nerves are close to breaking point. 'What do you mean, "not of this world"?' The older man puts a comforting hand on the constable's arm. 'I know it's difficult to accept, my boy, but I've encountered these things before. They are the vanguard of an invading force from the planet M… '
The policeman screams as a huge, scaly claw bursts through the window. 'Professor! Professor Nightshade! For God's sake… !' The older man's face zooms into view. Grim and determined. Fade to black. Thunderous chords bellow out the familiar theme tune as the word Nightshade is superimposed on a roll of rather jerky credits.
Professor Nightshade - Edmund Trevithick
Constable Chorley - James Reynolds
Staff Sergeant Ripper - William Jarrold
The blue light from the television screen threw garish shadows across Edmund Trevithick's chuckling face as he watched his name flicker by. He smiled, a little indulgently, and leant forward in his chair to switch off the set. The room seemed suddenly very dark and quiet. Trevithick cleared his throat loudly and smiled his famous lopsided smile. It hadn't really dated much at all, even if he did say so himself! Even so, it had been a good few years since he'd last played old Professor Nightshade. Nice of Auntie Beeb, though, to give the series a dusting down and a slot on their new second channel.
Trevithick looked around the room at the circle of elderly people, all sound asleep; their gentle snores rising and falling in pitch like steam from old copper kettles. He harrumphed loudly, considering himself a sprightly seventy years old and nothing like the poor old dears with whom he shared a roof, now clustered around the television in a sea of tartan blankets.
He huffed again at his compatriots. They'd promised to stay awake for his programme, they'd promised.
'I don't know why I bother,' he said out loud.
'Bother about what?'
It was Jill Mason, the warden of the old people's home, sneaking up on him again.
'Don't do that!' snapped Trevithick. 'Gave me the shock of me life.'
Jill was lifting up cushions and looking under chairs.
'You haven't seen the Radio Times about, have you, Edmund?'
Trevithick smiled his lopsided smile. He'd hidden the periodical during one of Mrs Holland's fits. That way no one would know there was anything else butNightshade on the television that night.
'Perhaps Mrs Holland has eaten it.'
'You're wicked,' said Jill, smiling.
She peered out of the window into the darkness and closed the curtains in one decisive movement. It was getting late.
Trevithick had to admit that he was fond of the girl, even if she was a little patronising at times and wore her hair too long. She'd even taken to sporting false eyelashes (of all things) which Trevithick thought resembled copulating insects. He objected less to the length of her skirts which barely reached her shapely knees. Girls had been far too prim in his youth. This bra-burning malarkey certainly had its advantages.
He kept his thoughts to himself, however, and steered the conversation back to his old series.
'We had a lot of trouble with young Jimmy Reynolds.'
'Jimmy Reynolds. The lad who played a bobby in this week's episode. Not long out of drama school, I seem to remember. And a bit fazed by all the lights and excitement. Of course, it was all live in those days. He was sick in his helmet just before he went on!'
'Really?' Jill said distractedly.
'Queer as a dog's hind leg as well. We used to call him Debbie Reynolds!'
Trevithick guffawed into his handkerchief, then looked over at Jill. 'Oh, you're as bad as this lot. You don't care. That's a piece of history you missed tonight.' Trevithick adjusted his blanket and huffed again.
Jill brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and crossed the room to check on Mrs Holland.
'Believe it or not, Edmund… '
'Mister Trevithick to you, girl.'
'Believe it or not, I have more important things to do than watch you on the TV.'
Trevithick grunted. 'Oh yes? Rather be with your bloody anarchist friends, would you?'
'In Paris? Isn't that the "in thing" for young people today?'
Jill felt a rush of blood to her face. She was silent for a while and then said simply, 'No.'
Mrs Holland, who had slowly woken up, began to cackle wildly. Her toothless, sunken face reminded Trevithick of one of those laughing sailor dolls at the seaside.
'Ooh, Mr Trevithick,' she cried. 'When are you on the telly? You keep telling us you're going to be on the telly… '
Trevithick raised his eyes heavenward. 'I've just been on the television, you stupid old woman. You were too busy snoring… '
Mrs Holland had become deaf again as she often did in moments of stress.
'Oh, never mind,' grumbled Trevithick.
'When's he on the telly, Jill?' pleaded the old woman, gripping Jill's arm. 'I do so want to see him. Tell me when he's on.'
Jill nodded vigorously and reassuringly, soothing Mrs Holland back into her chair.
'And let me know when Wilfrid gets home,' she said finally, drifting back into sleep.
'Wilfrid?' said Trevithick with a raised eyebrow.
'Her husband.' Jill tucked the blanket around the old woman's knees. 'Killed in the First World War, I think.'
'Hmmph,' Trevithick grunted. 'Mad as a hatter. Well, if you'll excuse me, I think it's time I got this old body to bed.'
Jill nodded distractedly and then looked up.
'Oh, I almost forgot. I got a phone call today. Someone from the BBC. They want to come up and interview you.'
'Interview me? Whatever for?'
Jill pulled a face. 'Apparently they've been flooded with letters since they started repeating your series. Seems you're famous all over again.'
Trevithick grunted. 'Probably just amazed I haven't dropped dead yet.'
'Shall I tell them it's all right then?'
'Shall I tell them it's OK to send someone up to see you?'
Trevithick shrugged non-committally. 'If you like,' he said and left the room.
Jill sighed. That man was so exasperating!
Once in the corridor, however, Edmund Trevithick's sulky expression changed. He laughed delightedly and his face broke out into a beaming, lopsided smile.
Famous! All over again!
He shambled excitedly to bed.
In the TV room, Jill was trying to ease old Mr Peel into a sitting position. She knew from bitter experience that if she couldn't make him sit upright, his medicine would run like syrup down his leathery chin.
She stopped suddenly and stiffened. There was an odd rustling sound coming from outside, as if tree branches were scraping against the window. But there were no trees that close to the wall. The heavy velvet curtains seemed to stare at Jill, daring her to open them.
Don't be scared. You're a grown woman. What do you have to fear?
Jill swallowed nervously, feeling the back of her throat suddenly dry up. Then, grateful that there was no one awake to see her, she hurried from the room.
Jack Prudhoe staggered on. He splashed through puddles in the cobbled square, careered around the post office and finally found himself on the moor path.
The moor. It stretched in front of him in the teeming rain; a great, dismal expanse of purple. Billowing clouds, like strokes of charcoal, lowered over the desolation.
Jack felt his Wellingtons sink into the sodden ground. Ahead of him, still discernible despite the darkness, the girl in the red dress was running. Almost skipping. Oblivious to the driving rain which soaked her auburn hair, she spun around, jumped into the air, shouted for Jack to follow her.
'Follow me, Jack! Follow… Follow… Follow me!'
Jack could hear her light, musical laugh resounding in the air. It was a sound he knew well. There was no mistaking it. The laughter of a delicate, carefree girl he'd once known and loved.
'Win!' he called.
She turned and he could see little beads of rain shining on her lovely young face. She laughed and Jack's head crowded with memories.
He pounded on, his old legs buckling under him. Once or twice his boots sank completely into the marshy ground and corpse-cold water stained the knees of his trousers.
'Win! You've come back!'
She beckoned to him and the old man ran on, his heart in his mouth and his face wreathed with smiles. It was impossible. Impossible!
Follow me, Jack. Follow me… Follow… Follow…
'Wait for me, Win. Wait for me!'
Win vanished into a little copse of scrubby, stunted trees. Jack plunged on until he reached the withered foliage which sheltered an enclave in the rocks too small to be called a cave but large enough for him to stand upright. He pushed aside the sharp branches and peered into the hollow beyond.
It was very dark now. Jack's mind was reeling. Somehow she was back. The years had been rolled away. Perhaps they had a chance to start all over again. Win was here. It didn't matter how. His beautiful young wife had come back to him. That was enough.
There was silence in the little hollow. Jack looked around, bemused. Then, to his right, he heard a soft, soft rustling sound. Something was emerging from the shadows. Something huge.
Jack tried to say Win's name but the sound died in his throat as the vast darkness closed around him. No time to turn and run. No time, even, to scream.
Out on the moor, in the darkness, there was only the steady hiss of the rain.
Trevithick shut the door of his room. He rubbed his hands together excitedly and looked at his face in the battered old shaving mirror he kept by the bed. 'Not bad,' he said happily. 'Not bad at all!' Those roguish good looks had stood him in good stead in the old Nightshade days. Why not again? And after those charming make-up girls had worked their magic he'd look twenty years younger. Perhaps they wanted to make a new series?
He undressed carefully, laying his tweed trousers over the arm of the chair, and clambered into his soft blue pyjamas.
The Dalesview Residential Home had been converted from an eighteenth-century farmhouse and still retained its deeply inset windows, although the leaded panes had been replaced by thick modern glass. Trevithick was always reminded of prison-cell windows.
He paused to draw the curtains and glanced outside.
The lashing rain was only visible in the weak yellow light of a distant streetlamp. Trevithick started. Something moved through the pool of lamplight into the darkness. He saw it only for a moment but it felt oddly familiar. A big, crooked, hunched figure. Scuttling like a crab.
Trevithick dismissed it with a shake of his head, drew the curtains and clicked off the bedside lamp. It was good to be inside and warm when there was such foul weather out there. He looked at the ceiling, his eyelids making a gentle tick-tick as he blinked into the dark. It really was good to be inside. Inside the Dalesview Residential Home and away from all that uncertainty. Much as he railed and protested and argued, there was a degree of comfort to be derived from being an old man in such extraordinary times. Exciting times, to be sure, but frighteningly unstable. Surely it was all going too fast? The certainties of his own young days, the ethics, the institutions - all seemed to be flooding away like precious wine from an unstoppered bottle. And it scared him.
There were wonders, of course. Hadn't he cheered with the rest when Apollo 7 returned to Earth only a couple of months before? Now they were saying man would be on the moon by next summer! Trevithick huffed to himself. All well and good, but at what cost? Half the world starving to death. Brave lads pointlessly slaughtered in Southeast Asia. Bloody bolshy students tearing Paris to bits. Give 'em a taste of the birch. That'd teach 'em. No, it was all going too fast… Much too… fast…
Trevithick felt himself sinking into sleep. Rain drummed against the window in relentless, sweeping waves. Then there was another sound. Rustling. As if branches were scraping at the thick panes…
'Wake up, Vijay. Vij? Come on, love.'
Vijay smiled to himself as he heard Holly's voice but kept his eyes shut all the same. It would be nice to tease her for a while. The smell of hot coffee tempted him to stir but the chair with its fat cushion was so comfortable…
'Come on, Vij. If Hawthorne finds you asleep… '
Vijay opened one eye and winked at Holly. She smiled back at him and pushed a mug of steaming coffee into his hand. Vijay sat up and shuddered, rubbing his shoulders and back in an effort to wake himself up. 'Happy now?' he said, stifling a protracted yawn.
Around them, the great grey room twittered and buzzed with energy. Banks of monitors, scopes and readouts covered every available surface, rising high towards the domed ceiling where a forest of gantries also hummed with life.
Holly was checking one of the smaller screens, a green, luminous display speckled with figures and oscillating curves. She glanced idly over her shoulder as Vijay stood up and loosened his tie.
'If you're going to snooze, don't volunteer for night shift. You know how crucial this stage is.'
Vijay laughed bitterly. 'Volunteering didn't really come into it, Holly. When Cooper or Hawthorne say "jump men" we… '
'Drop off to sleep?'
Vijay sneaked up behind Holly and put his arms around her waist. Holly craned her neck and gave him a light kiss on the cheek. Vijay grinned.
They'd been colleagues at the Space Tracking Station for eight months and lovers for four. Vijay had unfashionable hopes that one day Holly would cease to be Miss Kidd and become Mrs Degun. But, like saying 'man' at the end of his sentences or admitting that he preferred Peter Noone to Jim Morrison, plucking up the courage to ask her was something Vijay hadn't quite pulled off.
'Missed me?' he asked.
Holly shrugged. 'Suppose so.'
Vijay smiled but couldn't quite suppress the little twinge of panic which rose up in him. What if she meant it? What if she really were indifferent to him?
Vijay looked at his reflection in the darkened windows and sighed. He'd tried to swing, he really had, growing his thick black hair to shoulder length and sporting a long, drooping Lennon moustache. But he felt uncomfortable with this image. It wasn't Vijay Degun expressing himself, it was Vijay pretending to be something he wasn't in order to impress Holly. Perhaps all those childhood stories about old Imperial England had made him yearn for security and normality. Certainly, he'd loved his adopted country with the zeal of a convert, ever since he and his father had stepped off the boat in 1951. Now he'd fallen in love with a wonderful woman who might just regard him as a little diversion to help pass the time during the yearlong slog at the station. There was so much to discuss. So many hurdles to be scaled. How could he tell his father he wanted to marry a white girl?
Holly turned and gently stroked his cheek.
'Get some sleep, Vij. I'm not tired. Besides, I've got some stuff to work on.'
He almost refused for the sake of chivalry but then remembered that chivalry wasn't hip; he nodded, grinned and found himself yawning again.
'OK. What time am I on in the morning?'
He never checked the roster. Holly, who used to find that infuriating, now thought it rather endearing. She looked at the clipboard which hung on the wall by the main display screens and rubbed the sleep out of her large green eyes.
'Er… eleven… eleven to nine. Yeah. Same as last Thursday. Cooper's on too. Then Hawthorne at four.'
Holly smiled sympathetically. 'Think yourself lucky. I've got Hawthorne right through Saturday while you're off enjoying yourself.'
Vijay pulled her towards him and kissed her. Around them, the instruments whirred and ticked soothingly. Holly wrinkled her freckled nose as Vijay's moustache brushed against it.
'Enjoy myself?' said Vijay, laughing. 'In this place?'
'Well, get yourself over to York or somewhere. How about the Brontes' house?'
Vijay shrugged. 'Been there, seen it et cetera. Besides, how can I enjoy myself if you're not around?'
Holly pulled away, blushing a little in spite of herself. Again that reluctance, thought Vijay, that reticence…
'Go to bed,' said Holly. 'I'll see you tomorrow.'
Vijay picked up his lab coat and nodded. He turned as he reached the door to the interior. 'Keep smiling.'
He disappeared into the darkness.
Holly sat down in Vijay's chair and rubbed her face. She really did wish Vijay didn't have the day off on Saturday. Dr Hawthorne would be breathing down her neck all day. Another interminable shift of doubles entendres and sarcasm from that nasty, rat-faced man. Always patronising. Always smiling that sickly smile.
'You must pay more attention, Miss Kidd, you really must,' said Holly to herself, imitating Hawthorne's funny, high-pitched voice. Then he'd probably get in a dig about Vijay, something about staying where nature intended or about parts of London resembling Calcutta.
Hawthorne's resentment was firm, clear and diamond hard. If Mr Wilson had any sense, he used to mutter, he'd deport the lot of them.
Holly sighed and looked at the clock. It was two in the morning. She drank a little more coffee and glanced at the ink tracers which measured the radio waves from the stars they monitored. The thin line of green ink was straight and unperturbed. They were on the lookout for pulsars, mainly - this year's great discovery - sweeping the heavens for likely sources.
The ink tracer continued on its placid path. Smooth as a knife through water.
Holly went to the window and gazed up at the brilliantly lit disc of the radio telescope which towered above the station. There were few stars visible in the murky black sky. She recognised Gemini and part of Taurus. Then a little of Orion, the constellation on which they were presently concentrating. But it rapidly vanished under a blanket of greasy cloud.
Yawning, Holly moved away from the window and, more through a desire to avoid starting work than any real need, walked into the corridor to make herself some more coffee.
Outside, the rain lashed the great parabola of the telescope, bouncing off into the guttering and cascading down the stained concrete walls of the station.
A mile away, in the village, Win Prudhoe spent her first night alone in forty years.
Trevithick awoke with a start. His gaze darted about the room as he took in the familiar shapes, still enveloped in thick darkness. The chair with his trousers laid across it and the old wardrobe with the wonky door were still there, but there was something wrong.
It was only when a sharp gust of freezing air wafted into his face that Trevithick noticed the window. His heart began to slam against his ribs and he felt a great tide of adrenaline pulse unpleasantly to his head.
Slowly, with great deliberation, Trevithick folded back the top blanket and tiptoed softly across the room. He clicked on the light.
A huge hole had been smashed in the thick pane of the window and the curtains hung in shreds, swinging from the broken rail like gibbet corpses. The shattered glass rattled as a stiff breeze from the moor ebbed and flowed against it.
Trevithick licked his suddenly dry lips and sat down heavily in his chair, crumpling the trousers he had so carefully laid out. His eyes moved quickly from the devastation around the window to his bed and then back again. He could see the pool of yellow light from the same streetlamp. Nothing there now. He glanced at his old brass alarm clock. Half past four.
And suddenly there was a voice. A shocking, twisted rattle of a voice, like dead air expelled from the lungs of a drowned man.
'Night… shade… ' it hissed. Chuckling, chuckling.
A dreadful smell - a rancid stench like bad meat - blasted through the smashed window. Trevithick felt his head becoming insanely light, almost as if it were about to leave his shoulders and fly away. He felt sick and dizzy all at once. Then the chuckle came again and the fearful stink rose up in his nostrils till he felt the room shuddering and blackening around him.
Holly looked at the clock. It was still ten past five. She must've looked at the thing a dozen times and there seemed to be no difference. Clockwatching, she thought. Naughty, naughty.
Ten past five. December 23, 1968. God, it was nearly Christmas. A fact which had totally escaped her until she'd looked at the calendar instead of the clock. The exhausting routine at the station had numbed her to the passage of time. Once, she would've been all excited, preparing presents and puddings. But all that was back in Wales with Uncle Louis. The only festive spirit she could imagine inside Hawthorne and Cooper was a couple of glasses of sherry.
Holly could remember playing snowballs with her Uncle Louis, using a pair of his old pit socks instead of gloves. Little bobbles of snow clung to the wool. She'd pulled a face.
'They are clean, you know, flower,' Louis had said, laughing in his big, barrel-chested way.
Their breath hung in the air like smoke. After several snowball fights their hands were red raw and cold as marble. Warming them by the fire induced a delicious tingling pain, soon sorted out by a little ginger wine. Then there would be steamy stuffing smells and the King on the radio. The last bits of rationed chocolate left over from the morning's gluttony would be consumed as Uncle Louis' tuneless singing drifted in from the kitchen…
Holly sighed. That was all such a long time ago. It made her think of another Christmas. Her first without James. And how Louis had comforted her as she wept into his cardigan, orange firelight glowing around them.
'It's all right, Holly, love, it's all right. Shhh now… '
A klaxon wrenched Holly from her thoughts, its violent screech echoing through the station. Holly stood up too quickly and banged her knee against the console.
The klaxon wailed at her accusingly. She whirled around, trying to locate the source of the emergency. The banks of lights twinkled on in innocent placidity and the ink-tracer continued to draw its steady line.
Holly dashed to the window and strained to make out anything in the gloom. Still the klaxon blared on. Theoretically, it should only be triggered by a breach in the security fence. Holly swallowed. There was no way she was going out there on her own.
Without warning, the ink-tracer began to oscillate crazily. The line broke up, rose and fell, creating an astonishing pattern of curves and waves in a seizure so rapid that the pen could hardly keep up with it. New information flooded through the monitors. Screens flared with light and energy.
Dr Hawthorne tumbled into the room, a heavy jumper over his pyjamas and his steel-rimmed glasses hanging off the end of his nose. He struggled to get the wire arms hooked over his ears.
'Kidd! What the hell do you think… '
He swung his head towards the ink-tracer and then over to the screen which crackled with data.
'Grief!' he said, swallowing hard. 'Where's all this coming from?'
Holly looked at him dazedly. The klaxon was still blaring in her ears.
'I said, where's it coming from? Which quadrant?'
Holly checked her files and joined Hawthorne.
'Erm… quadrant… '
'Come on, woman.'
'No change. It's Orion. Same as before, Dr Hawthorne.'
'You haven't changed the scan?'
Holly shook her head. Hawthorne whistled. 'I don't believe this. Get on to Cooper would you?'
Hawthorne shot a nasty look up at Holly. She took a sharp intake of breath, almost wincing at Hawthorne's transparent racism.
'Vijay's asleep. I relieved him.'
'Did you now?'
Holly ignored him. She turned her attention to a stream of print-out which was piling at her feet.
'Why's the klaxon going?' she said distractedly.
Hawthorne shook his head and tapped a series of figures into the console. 'I don't know. Why don't you find out?'
Holly let out an exasperated sigh and stalked off towards the internal phone. Shaun, the new security man, should've reported in by now.
Holly called Dr Cooper, who was none too pleased to be woken up, and then Vijay shambled into the room, his face slack and drunk with sleep.
'Holly? What's going on?'
She hugged him, grateful for an ally, and led him back into the main room.
'We're getting massive emissions on the feed. Piles of data. I've never seen anything like it. Tons of the stuff.'
Vijay shook his head as if to clear it and opened his eyes wide.
'Why's the klaxon… ?'
Holly turned him towards the double-doored exit and patted his backside affectionately. 'I don't know. Why don't you find out?'
Vijay sniffed resignedly and pulled on one of the thick parkas which hung by the doors. The klaxon's screech was beginning to get on his nerves. Why hadn't Shaun done something about it? It was his job to see to the thing, after all. Privately, Vijay sympathised with the security man. It couldn't be much fun patrolling the perimeter fence every night. Things were so quiet he often wondered why they had security at all.
'It's just that nothing ever happens around here, Mr Degun,' Shaun's predecessor used to say. 'And what's the point of me walking around when we all know that no one would dream of breaking in?'
He'd finally left and gone off to work in an open prison somewhere down south. Very much the same line of work, Vijay thought, smiling.
Vijay opened the doors and stepped out into the hallway. Within a moment, he was outside. The icy wind blasted him full in the face. Darkness swallowed him whole.
Freezing rain was once again lashing across the moor in great, sweeping waves. There were still a few lights on in the village and Vijay recognised the bedroom light in The Shepherd's Cross. Distractedly, he wondered whether Betty Yeadon was having another of her sleepless nights. There was a lot of gossip about how ill she'd been looking. Lawrence, though, never said a word. Just grinned.
Vijay swung round his torch in an arc and the perimeter fence loomed into view, gobs of rain splashing off its barbed-wire top.
Out of the corner of his eye, Vijay saw something move; a hunched shape scuttling just out of the reach of his torch-beam. He shuddered. There it was again. Just out of sight like a glimpse of summer lightning. He began, unconsciously, to chew his fingernails.
In the light from the torch, a huge rent was visible in the mesh of the fence, the steel wire peeled back like the skin of an orange.
His voice sounded feeble and strained. The rain hissed back at him.
Vijay began to move back towards the station but didn't feel able to turn his back on the fence. The wind howled through the gaping hole.
There it was again. A definite shape this time, bunched up and knobbly. There was a strange smell too, like bad meat. Vijay turned up his nose and, without a second thought, ran back to the station. The darkness seemed to chase him all the way like the collapsing walls of a tunnel.
He pulled open the doors and stumbled gratefully inside. The klaxon was still blaring away.
'Can't we shut that thing up?' It was Dr Cooper's voice. Vijay was grateful she'd arrived, however bad-tempered, because she could always keep the loathsome Hawthorne at bay. He strode into the control room.
'Well?' said Hawthorne gruffly.
'The fence has been breached. Great big hole torn in it.'
Cooper looked up from the still-chattering computers.
'I saw something,' said Vijay pointedly.
Cooper furrowed her brow and dug her hands into her pockets. She was a big, middle-aged woman with cropped, steely-grey hair and fearsome blue eyes. There was something very likeable about her no-nonsense manner to which Vijay warmed, although he often felt the rough edge of her tongue.
'Any sign of Shaun?' asked Holly. Vijay shook his head.
'Well, we might as well turn off the alarm, until we've found out what's going on. Shall I call the police?'
Holly turned off the klaxon and a blessed, peaceful silence descended like a blanket of rose petals on to the room. Cooper nodded absently.
'Er… yes, yes, you do that, Holly. We're all up and about now, anyway. Vijay, come over here and log these readings, would you? Incredible. I can't make head nor tail of it.'
Vijay slipped off his parka and picked up a sheaf of paper. Dr Cooper turned and beamed at her team like a successful football coach.
'Well, boys and girls,' she said. 'It looks as though our waiting has paid off.'
With theatrical timing, the chattering of the computers and the scratching of the ink tracers stopped. There was a slow, mournful whine as the machinery eased up. The harsh lights in the long room flickered briefly and then flared into full life again.
It was over.
Cooper laughed. 'Plenty to get on with, anyway!'
Vijay slid gratefully into a chair whilst Holly went to the phone. Cooper and Hawthorne were deep in conversation like schoolkids cramming for an exam. There would be time enough, Vijay decided, to get excited about all this. Time enough. In the morning. He felt his heavy lids closing.
The moor was still solidly shrouded in darkness. Only the brilliantly illuminated dish of the telescope, spreading its chilly glow in a wide circle, was discernible.
A good mile away from the station, on the old road which led to St Hilda's monastery, Billy Coote was beginning his day. He always got up early, even in this weather, folding away the stinking blankets and newspapers which had kept him warmish through the long night. He missed the old papers with their heavy broadsheets. The new ones might be easier for people to read but they weren't nearly as good cover. It was a shame more famous people didn't get shot, he thought maliciously. The supplement under which he'd slept after Bobby Kennedy kicked the bucket was so thick he'd hung on to it for weeks.
The soaked, peeling green planks of the old bus shelter hadn't been so uncomfortable after all, despite the draughts and the none-too-pleasant smell emanating from the corner. But as Billy himself had largely contributed to that, he wasn't about to complain.
He rummaged through his straggly grey beard and ran a hand through the remaining hairs on his sunburnt head. This was what he liked to call his 'ablutions'.
It was going to be freezing cold again, he could tell, with more rain or maybe even snow on the way. He sniffed the crisp air disdainfully.
In the summertime, he would watch the sun clawing its way over the horizon. He loved the way it came up behind the monastery. Made him feel all spiritual.
Perhaps it was just his wax-clogged ears playing tricks with him but, just at that moment, Billy Coote swore he heard a strangulated, grating whine like rusty chains being dragged across gravel. It seemed to be coming from quite close to the shelter. After a few seconds, the noise died away with a crump like the explosion of a Great War shell, and Billy looked about in confusion. He crept around the side of the bus shelter and peered into the darkness. There was something tall and solid, with a light flashing on top, standing there.
Billy walked out of the shelter and up to the structure which was barely visible in the murky darkness. As he drew closer, however, he recognised the thing as a police telephone box. This came as a great surprise because he was sure it hadn't been there the night before.
Intrigued, he looked the tall blue box up and down, gazed in at the frosted-glass windows and, after rubbing his grubby hand against the sleeve of his jacket, pressed his palm against one of the doors. He jerked back in shock. It was warm. And it was humming…
Morning came slowly to Crook Marsham, the monastery, the tracking station and, although no one knew it at the time, to the TARDIS, whose old blue paintwork glistened in the fine drizzle of new rain.
The Doctor, Ace decided, was in need of a change. Not of clothes, nor of face (she was beginning to understand something of his regenerative powers) but of environment. Of late, he had grown irritable and sulky, fond of pacing the console room and the corridors of the TARDIS with hands thrust deep in pockets, mumbling and sighing. From time to time his bushy eyebrows would twitch and his heavily lined forehead would crease into a thoughtful frown as if inspiration had seized him.
Ace had begun to retreat to her own little room, playing 'I wanna be adored' very loudly in the hope of stirring her strange companion into some sort of activity, however hostile. In all their adventures together she'd never known him so moody and sullen.
Having nothing to do, Ace's mind turned to the drab, roundel-indented walls of her own room. She'd never been one for feathering nests, even back on Earth, and the hectic pace of her life with the Doctor precluded any thoughts of making a real home in the TARDIS. But they hadn't been anywhere exciting since the Doctor had pulled his old ship back together again. These days he seemed happier playing scratchy old records on his gramophone than talking to her.
Ace had a thought. She'd never seen inside the Doctor's room. He seemed guarded and defensive whenever the subject was raised. Would it be full of mementos? Home? Childhood? Family? Or did the Doctor have too many memories to keep track of? After all, he did claim to be over nine hundred years old. You'd tend to amass quite a bit of junk after all that time.
Not for the first time, she speculated on how the Doctor coped with his frenetic, nomadic existence. On one of the rare occasions when she and her mum hadn't been at each other's throats, they'd talked about what it must be like to live forever.
'Couldn't bear it, Dory,' her mum had said. 'All those friends, all those people you'd love. You'd have to watch them all get old and die. And you'd just go on and on. Start all over again.'
Ace shuddered at the thought. She switched off her tape deck and gazed absently about the room. She was a striking young woman with clear, soft skin and a heart-shaped, almost Edwardian face. Her thick brown hair flowed down the back of her T-shirt.
There were footsteps in the corridor outside. Ace jumped off the bed and threw open the door. 'Doctor?'
Ace glimpsed movement out of the corner of her eye and set off after it.
She came upon the Doctor in a little room off one of the main arterial corridors. He was lounging on a high, padded chair, staring into space. Cold, pale grey light from some hidden source reflected off his elfin face.
'Doctor?' said Ace in a quiet voice.
He was wearing a long, muslin nightshirt and a shot-silk blue dressing gown, but his legs and feet were bare.
'Running a bath, Professor?' said Ace cheerily.
The Doctor ran a hand through his tousled hair but gave no indication of having noticed Ace's presence in the room. She began to feel awkward and looked around the grey room which was full of dust and yellowing papers. The Doctor sat amidst it all like some somnolent Buddha.
'Well, if you're going to ignore me … ' she began.
The Doctor looked up at her and fixed her with a penetrating stare.
'What do you say to a bit of exploring?'
Ace was relieved. 'Anything's better than just hanging around inside the TARDIS.'
'Good, good. I think… I think I can promise you something a little recherché.'
'Re … what?'
But the Doctor was on his feet and off down the corridor without another word. Ace shrugged and walked after him, but he was covering ground at such an extraordinary rate that she found herself racing to keep up with the little man.
'Where are we going, Professor?'
'There's something I want you to see,' the Doctor called over his shoulder.
And so they plunged deeper and deeper into the heart of the TARDIS, taking in more shuttered rooms, alcoves and niches than Ace had seen in her short life. There were occasional delights and surprises: a big red room entirely full of hats, a patch of what appeared to be open countryside (which she could only presume the Doctor reserved for picnics) and a glimpse of the vast, mahogany-panelled TARDIS library. Ace stared in disbelief at the seemingly unending stock of bundled papers, scrolls and ancient, leather-bound tomes, all tied up with waxed string, piled against doors or sprawling like paper waterfalls down the library's spiral staircases.
'Books,' said the Doctor casually.
Reaching a junction point where four roundeled corridors branched off, the Doctor paused to get his bearings.
'We've been this way before,' sighed Ace.
'What?' The Doctor's tone was irritable.
'We've been this way already. I'm sure of it. We're lost.'
The Doctor bristled. 'Lost? Me! I know this ship like the back of… the back of… ' He gazed distractedly up and down the corridor, '… beyond.'
Ace rolled her eyes and plunged her hands into her Levis.
'Maybe we should've left a trail like that Greek bloke with the minah bird.'
'Minotaur,' said the Doctor, sucking his finger. 'Anyway, we're not lost, I've found it.'
Just to one side of them was a large, pearl-grey door, indented with the usual roundel pattern but possessed of a big, old-fashioned doorknob.
The Doctor bent down a little and slowly, almost reverently, opened the door.
Ace stepped back a little as a wave of icy air hit her face. Then another sensation seemed to steal over her. A deep and profound stillness. She was reminded of her first visit to church as a child when the sense of ritual and holiness almost overwhelmed her.
The room beyond the door had six crumbling stone walls, their solid roundels dappled by a warm green light. In the centre stood a massive granite console, elaborately carved like a Gothic altar. Nests of tiny, winking instrumentation crowded its pillars and panels.
'It's like sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool,' she said, gazing at the arched ceiling in awe.
The Doctor was already busy at the console, checking that the antiquated machinery was still operational.
'It has a certain charm, I suppose,' he said grudgingly. 'But it always seemed too tucked away for ready use.'
'What is it?'
'Tertiary console room. Not bad, eh?'
'Not bad? It's beautiful!'
The Doctor seemed to be warming to his theme which pleased Ace immeasurably.
'Oh yes,' he said, fussing over the console, 'a little spatial relocation and we can call this… '
He paused and began to stare into space again.
'Home?' volunteered Ace.
The Doctor said nothing.
Ace turned her attention to the rest of the room. In a corner, where clumps of wisteria were winding their way up the wall, she discovered a full-length mirror mounted on a beautiful ebony stand. She grinned at herself in the mottled silver surface.
Hanging from and scattered about the old mirror were masses of clothes. This must be some of the Doctor's centuries of junk, thought Ace. She glanced over at him but he was absorbed in his work. Shrugging, she picked up a few garments and held them in front of her.
There was a big brown duffel coat of the type the Doctor was fond of wearing, a thick donkey jacket, a funny red thing which looked like a Roman toga (and probably was), several pairs of gloves, five collapsible opera hats and a tweed waistcoat splashed and stained with green ink.
Ace pulled a face. Then her eyes alighted on a rather drab grey tunic. There was a little badge embroidered on the apron and Ace smiled as she recognised it. As quickly as possible, she struggled into the garment and turned to face the Doctor.
'Ta, da!' she announced happily.
Ace smiled hopefully. 'Gross, isn't it?'
The Doctor's face set in a rigid frown.
'Take it off,' he said in a quiet, dangerous voice.
'Take it off.' snapped the Doctor, swinging back to the console.
Ace stared dumbly at the Doctor's back. She took off the tunic in embarrassed silence and laid it down carefully by the mirror.
'Sorry,' she said in a hoarse whisper.
The Doctor's back remained obstinately turned towards her.
'If you don't want me to muck about, Professor… '
'Doctor! I'm the Doctor! How many times do I have to tell you, you stupid girl?'
Ace recoiled as if she'd been struck. The Doctor hovered by the console a moment, his face flushed with emotion, then he stalked from the room, his dressing gown trailing behind him.
Ace could feel a rising, numb pain in her throat and hands. Familiar symptoms for the onset of tears. Familiar symptoms which she'd convinced herself she'd outgrown.
No! she said to herself, angrily. No tears. Don't give him the satisfaction of seeing you cry. If he wants to treat you like this, that's his business.
She sat down on the stone-flagged floor and gently fingered the drab grey tunic. The embroidered badge stood out in red and gold: COAL HILL SCHOOL.
That was the place where they'd had that run in with the Daleks. So why was the Doctor so upset about that? And what was he doing with one of the uniforms anyway?
In an amazingly short space of time, the Doctor returned, now dressed in a chocolate-brown belted coat, russet waistcoat and checked trousers. Ace, feeling suddenly chilly, had struggled into the donkey jacket.
'Very fetching!' said the Doctor enthusiastically, as if nothing at all had happened. He spotted the brown duffel coat on the floor and put it on. Ace glanced at the far wall as a roundel glowed into colourful life.
'Scanner?' she said, shakily.
'Yes. Neat, isn't it?'
The Doctor was all smiles now. What the hell was the matter with him?
A picture began to form on the scanner but it was vague and hazy.
'Reception's not so hot but then she hasn't been used in ages. Just getting used to it, I expect.'
It was obviously dark outside but Ace could make out a bleak, blasted landscape of moor and heather.
'Quite,' said the Doctor. 'Cold, wet and dark but at least you're home.'
Ace looked at him. 'Home?'
'Earth at any rate. Twentieth century. North of England. Plus a continuous precipitation of condensed oxygen and hydrogen compound.'
'Meaning it's chucking it down. Fetch another brolly, would you?'
A few moments later they stepped outside into the darkness. In front of the TARDIS stood the rickety structure of the old bus shelter, recently home to Billy Coote, who was now pelting like a madman towards Crook Marsham.
Over towards the east, the old monastery was etched against the threatening sky and the tracking station loomed like a behemothal saucer out of the purple heather.
The Doctor put up his umbrella, plonked his hat gracelessly on to his head and walked a little way forward to where a faded wooden road sign protruded like a lightning-struck tree from the sodden ground.
'Crook Marsham: one mile.' He turned to Ace and smiled. 'How about breakfast?'
The great black prow of the ship lurches sickeningly. There are already men in the water. Water like tar. Black, dreadful, fathomless.
A flare smashes into the sky and for a moment everything is clear. Stark. Vividly white.
Men in the sea. Life-boats. Empty life-jackets. The bulk of the ship slips under the waves. A mass of frothing foam as the sea covers her gun turrets. Then the awful, chilling moan as the protesting metal buckles and snaps. Panels burst. Black water floods her engines.
And then there is screaming. Men in white sweaters. Freezing. Saturated. Screaming as the ship's pull drags them under. Young faces blanched white by the flare. A few boats left. The tall turret of the U-boat slips under the water, its job done.
Silence. Men bobbing slowly in their Mae Wests. Most of them dead already, their faces turned down as if in penitence. Some are still alive, kicking their submerged feet. The great cold, marble-smooth expanse of the ocean is revealed as dawn comes.
Alfred Beadle. Thinking of home. Thinking of his mum and dad back in York, and Betty, his younger sister. Alfred Beadle, not yet nineteen, feeling the freezing water numbing his body. Staring out at a dozen of his comrades floating silently by…
Jackie Barrett, his big face turned towards the sky, quite dead. Eddie Turnbull. Always smiling. Always joking. Slipping under the waves as his life eases away.
Alfred Beadle. Thinking of home. Would Betty be making tea right now? He could do with some tea. Steaming hot. Strong and orange like it was on Sundays in his mum's best china.
Was it raining back there? He'd have liked to have seen the Minster in the rain again.
Something tugging at his leg. A sharp, clear cold pain like frozen needles. Blood pooling to the surface. And then the panic rising and his gorge rising as he sees the triangular fin break the water and circle. Circle.
Alfred Beadle. Screaming. Screaming for someone. The shark pulling blindly at him. Going down. Going under. Arms slipping under the life-belt. Pulling. Screaming for Betty. Salt water in his mouth. But soon it'll be over. Please Christ make it soon. Water in his eyes. Stinging. His hair spreading like weed under the water. Betty… Betty… Remember me, Betty…
'Betty, love. Are you all right?'
Lawrence Yeadon clicked on the bed-side lamp and put an arm around his wife who was sitting bolt upright in bed. Her nightie was soaked in sweat and there was an awful, haunted look in her red-rimmed eyes.
She turned and looked distractedly at her husband. Then she nodded, slowly and deliberately. 'I'm all right.'
Lawrence eased her back on to the pillow.
She nodded again and reached for the little brown bottle of pills which stood on the cabinet.
'Your Alf again?' asked Lawrence.
She popped a couple of pills into her mouth and managed to swallow them.
'Yes. Alf again.' Her voice was dry as paper.
Lawrence sighed and switched off the lamp. The light of morning was already insinuating itself into the room. He put his hands behind his head and looked at the ceiling.
'You can't go on blaming yourself you know, love.'
How many times had he said that to her?
Betty Yeadon turned on to her side. She swallowed and tried to get a little saliva into her mouth. She couldn't close her eyes. If she did, she would see him again. Or what the sharks left of him. Bobbing in the water, his skin blanched and his eyes pecked out by gulls. The way the rescue ship had found him.
'I might as well get up,' she said, glancing at the clock. It was nearly half past eight. 23 December.
Lawrence closed his eyes. He felt terrible. They'd already been woken up once during the night by the siren from that bloody telescope on the moor. And now another of Betty's nightmares. Something would have to give sooner or later.
Betty slipped on her dressing gown and padded down the hall. She could hear her stepson, Robin, snoring gently in his room. Then his alarm clock clattered into life and she heard his frantic efforts to disable it. He moaned.
Placing her hand on the door, Betty closed her eyes and breathed deeply. It was as if she were drawing strength and comfort from Robin's presence. She opened her eyes and saw Nobby Stiles grinning toothlessly between her fingers. Robin's giant poster of the World Cup winners stared at her, unseeing.
Suddenly feeling a fool, she pulled her hand away and walked off down the corridor.
A pair of football socks, stiff with sweat, lay discarded on the carpet like mummified earthworms. Betty picked them up and rolled them into a ball. She continued down the corridor and tossed them into the washing basket by the bathroom. Domestic things. Robin's washing. Lawrence's washing. That's what she needed to do. Comforting domestic things. Something mundane to keep her mind off it.
Betty entered the tap room of the pub. It stank of stale beer and cigarette smoke. She found a glass, helped herself to a triple measure of whiskey and selected a seat by the window. It was the same seat in which Jack Prudhoe had supped his solitary pint the afternoon before.
Betty glanced at the tatty Christmas decorations pinned across the bar and began to cry.
The Doctor was in voluble mood despite the driving rain and had discoursed on a variety of subjects, including Gothic architecture, his favourite angling flies and the importance of a clean collar, by the time he and Ace wandered into Crook Marsham.
It was getting light at last and the hotchpotch of houses and shops became distinct as they advanced up the main street.
'Bit bleak, isn't it, Doctor?'
The Doctor was gazing across the street at a rather dilapidated Saxon church.
'Bleak? No, no. It's characterful, Ace, characterful. Just look at that church. Eighth century, I believe, with Norman and Victorian additions. Look at the crenellations!'
Ace grimaced. She couldn't stand it when he became enthusiastic.
'Didn't you say something about breakfast?'
The Doctor sighed and turned away from the church. He spun his umbrella round like a water-dowser and pointed towards The Shepherd's Cross.
'Bit early in the day, isn't it?'
The Doctor grinned. 'Mmm, with the sun not even remotely over the yardarm! … Actually, I was thinking they might be serving refreshment of some sort. The TARDIS food-dispensers are all very well but sometimes you just can't beat a decent British cuppa.'
There was an upstairs light on but no sign of life. Suddenly, in a flurry of scarf, coat and bicycle, a young man came hurtling around the side of the pub, almost running the Doctor down.
'God, sorry. Are you OK? I'm a bit late for work. Are you sure you're all right?'
'I'll live,' said the Doctor, brushing himself down.
Robin jumped back on to his bike and grinned at Ace.
'I wonder if you can help us, young man?'
'We'd like to know whether this fine establishment is open for some breakfast just yet?'
Ace found that she was staring at Robin as he spoke to the Doctor. There were disconcerting but very nice tinglings moving through her body.
'Fraid not,' said Robin. 'Mum's just up but the pub doesn't open till eleven.'
He was tall and slim with thick black hair and skin as smooth as soapstone. His eyes were an extraordinary green and his smile broad and cheeky.
'Try the café up the road,' he advised. 'Cheap and cheerful but it does the job.'
'Thank you very much,' said the Doctor.
Robin apologised again and then pedalled away like a madman. Ace watched him go all the way.
Robin's slim form vanished around the corner and on to the moor track.
'If you're still interested in breakfast … ?'
Ace shook her head as if to clear it and smiled. 'Yeah, of course.'
The Doctor set off towards a flickering neon café sign about a hundred yards away. Ace followed close behind him, her head sunk thoughtfully on her breast.
'I wonder if we're anywhere near Durham. Have you ever seen the cathedral?' asked the Doctor.
'No,' said Ace distantly.
'You should, you know, you really should. Of course I remember the day it was finished … '
Ace looked up from her thoughts and smiled. She never knew whether the Doctor's tales were serious or not. At any rate, he certainly seemed to have snapped out of his depression. If anything, he now seemed a little too chatty. Almost as if he were trying to hide something…
Edmund Trevithick blinked into wakefulness. There was a band of cold winter sunlight streaming across his bed. He blinked again. For a moment he couldn't remember where he was. There was some fugitive memory prodding at his subconscious.
Lying there in the bed by the window, Trevithick began to think of his childhood. He remembered seeing the intense, thrilling white reflection off newly fallen snow as it peeked through the chinks in the curtains. And the joy of throwing back the heavy drapes to expose the acres and acres of land behind his father's parsonage, knee deep in wonderful snow.
His father (a completely different sort of chap out of church) would get into his 'civvies' and root out the old wooden sled from the outhouse. Then they would be off, Edmund, his father and Edmund's elder brother Maurice, speeding down the hill, bumping and smashing into little mounds of impacted snow or bruising their backsides on unexpected clumps of stubble, which protruded like yellow bristles from under the drifts.
The latter part of the year had always been his favourite. Better by far than the long, depressing summer evenings which stretched out like flavourless chewing gum. Better than the dull, in-between months with no special character. No, the end of the year it was, with the deliciously long run-in through the burnt turnip smells of Hallowe'en and dark smoke of November into the crisp, freezing, perfect-sunned days of early December.
And then Christmas! One huge red and green memory, packed to bursting with sensual delights. Pulled by his mother's hand into palatial department stores like castles of ice: twinkling lights, the hum of extortionately priced train-sets, the exciting smell of unfamiliar perfume, all mingling and bursting before his astonished little eyes. Going into these stores in daylight and the fantastic shock of emerging into wintry darkness - the reversal of the disappointment he felt coming out of a cinema into painful sunshine.
Trevithick recalled sitting with his father and brother in a wonderfully dark front room that smelled of tangerines. Dark as pitch. The corners of the room softened into abstraction by the orange light of the fire. His father helped him write out his list for Santa Claus and then tossed the small square of paper on to the fused knot of red hot coal. It spun briefly in the column of hot air, became temporarily transparent - he could see writing on both sides at once - and vanished up the chimney.
Then there would be tall tales from his father about winters so severe that houses vanished under drifts and match flames froze as they were struck.
That was back at the turn of the century. Then he'd seen really bad winters. The one in '47… and '63, only five years ago. That had caught him short. He'd never last another one of those if it came, especially with the ancient heating in the Dalesview Home.
A bad smell, like rotting fish, dragged him back from his memories into reality. It was the same smell from the night before. Trevithick sat up in bed and looked around. The sight of the shattered panes and billowing curtains brought back his experiences in a rush of remembrance. He swallowed hard and pressed the buzzer which would summon Jill.
Jill Mason glared at the buzzing light by her bed. Edmund again. Was he never content? She knew already that whichever side of the bed she chose to get out of would be the wrong side. She'd slept badly and was in a rather foul mood. Trevithick's remarks of the previous night had touched a raw nerve. Yes, she would rather be with those 'bloody anarchists' in Paris than rot in this dismal corner of England. She'd received an exciting letter from an old university friend only the other day, extensively detailing the French students' pitched battles with the police on the Rive Gauche. It had been a magical summer, her friend assured her, getting stoned with her strange and interesting new French lover, trying to 'find herself' by looking inward.
Jill felt an almost painful sense of missing out on something huge and important. She should've been there too, challenging reactionaries like de Gaulle and Johnson just as she had at university, not locked up in an old folk's home. Sometimes she felt more of an invalid than her charges.
Trevithick's light buzzed. Jill sighed and threw on a heavily creased dressing gown. She padded down the corridor and threw open Trevithick's door.
'What is it, Edmund?' she yawned. 'Because if it can wait I'd appreciate it. It's not time for breakfast yet and Polly has her hands full with Miss Norton's drip… '
Trevithick didn't say a word. Instead he simply pointed at the window like some dying medieval bishop catching sight of the Grim Reaper.
Jill rubbed a hand across sleep-misted eyes and turned round. The sight of the smashed window turned her cold. She remembered the time her flat was burgled and how she'd thrown up at the sight of devastation. But it wasn't the financial loss, or even the mess, which had upset her. Rather it was the sense of invasion; the idea that some stranger had ploughed through her private things, destroyed the sanctity of her little nest.
She felt the same thing now and the same desire to vomit. Trevithick looked at her, a little fear in his eyes.
Jill then became aware of another sensation. An insistent, pungent smell wafting from the shattered window. It was like bad meat. Or the rancid smell of a dead animal in the road…
The Doctor and Ace had taken Robin's advice and were now warmly ensconced in Mrs Crithin's delightful café, a pleasantly cluttered room of red plastic upholstered seats and tarnished cappuccino urns. There was a heavy, greasy smell of bacon fat coupled with the not unpleasant blue haze of Mrs Crithin's eighth cigarette of the morning.
On the wall, Ace had found a calendar which, along with Mrs Crithin's splendidly boisterous decorations, told her it was almost Christmas. Christmas 1968.
She felt a little thrill run through her. So here she was at last. The real sixties. Not '63 where she'd seen little of England except Coal Hill School and the Daleks, but '68: time of the Beatles and the Stones, Martin Luther King and the Mexico Olympics, the Paris Riots and man on the moon. No, that was '69, wasn't it?
All she'd known of this time was her mum's enthusiasm and the evidence of faded home movies. Yet even these silent figures in vibrant colours mouthing and waving on warm beaches seemed to have something of the era's indefinable presence about them. Ace's mum with high, lacquered hair and garish mini-dress laughing as Uncle Harry goosed her from behind. Harry's mint-green Hillman Minx with its Batmobile tail-fins gliding into the distance as the family waved him away. All this to the achingly comforting trill of the film projector.
The Doctor returned from the counter with two mugs of steaming tea. It was nice and warm inside the café and Ace took off her donkey jacket with some relief.
'Ta,' she said and took a deep draught of tea. It was a little too hot and burned the roof of her mouth.
The Doctor was staring into the middle distance, his inky black eyes distracted and fathomless. He drank some tea almost without thinking. Ace decided it was best to keep quiet. Mrs Crithin's tranny played a song which Ace could remember Uncle Harry humming in his familiar way. It drifted across the café as Mrs Crithin mopped up some spilled tea.
'Those were the days, my friend. We thought they'd never end. We'd sing and dance for ever and a day … '
Quite suddenly, the Doctor seemed to snap out of it and fixed Ace with his most charming smile.
'Well, Ace,' he mused, rubbing his finger around the rim of the mug, 'how are you keeping?'
It was such an odd question that Ace was momentarily taken aback. It was the sort of thing old aunts or distant cousins ask just before they remember they haven't seen you since you were knee high to a grasshopper.
'What d'you mean? You see me every day.'
The Doctor smiled, but it was a thin smile. 'I know, I know. But I mean … how are you? Really. In yourself.'
'Oh, I'm not putting this very well, am I?' said the Doctor, absently rummaging through the pockets of his duffel coat. 'What I'm trying to find out is… well… whether you're happy. Whether you don't think it's time to put down a few roots.'
Ace was shocked. The Doctor was full of surprises. She had a vague impression, too, that he was really thinking aloud, trying to vocalise a debate obviously raging inside his own head.
'What are you on about, Doctor?' She drank another gulp of tea. The burnt skin on the roof of her mouth was beginning to throb.
The Doctor sighed and gazed past her again, his eyes seeing different places, different people, different times … 'I wonder if I'm not being a selfish old Time Lord. Keeping you from better things.'
'But Doctor, you're all I've got! I don't want anything else. Not yet. Where else could I go?'
The Doctor put up his hands. 'It's all right, it's all right. I'm not about to abandon you. I just thought… perhaps… perhaps it's time to stop all this aimless wandering. That's all.'
Ace nodded slowly. She'd been right then.
'I'm not daft, Doctor. You're talking about yourself, aren't you?' she said, cocking an eyebrow. The Doctor looked at her in mock indignation and then his rumpled face collapsed into a resigned frown. 'Yes. I'm talking about myself.'
It had begun to rain again and Mrs Crithin switched on the dirty-yellow lights to brighten things up. Sheets of rain lashed against the big, plate-glass window. There was a quality of stillness in the air too, as in before a thunderstorm. Ace suddenly felt like a priest at confession.
'Go on,' she said quietly. The Doctor bowed his head and gazed at his mug of tea. In the garish artificial light he seemed much older, the lines on his wise face like the carving on some ancient crusader's tomb effigy.
'It's just that… I've been thinking lately… and if I've been difficult, then I'm truly sorry. Thinking… whether I've really done any good. All these years… all these years of roaming about. Righting wrongs. Interfering… '
Ace felt an upsurge of tenderness inside her. 'But how can you say that, Doctor? You know you've done good. The whole world… Well, everyone is in your debt a hundred times over. You know that.'
'But have I the right to take it upon myself? To act as self-appointed judge and jury?' The Doctor looked Ace in the eye.
'You know you've done good,' she said, feeling that her attempt at reassurance was hopelessly inadequate.
'Have I, Ace? Have I?'
Ace looked away. Mrs Crithin was attempting to change the station on her tranny.
The Doctor rested his cheek on one hand and his deeply lined face rucked up against his fingers like ripples in sand.
'I'm so tired,' he said with a heavy sigh. His eyes flicked up at Ace. 'I've been thinking a lot lately. About the past. About my past, I mean.'
Ace suddenly remembered the incident with the grey tunic in the tertiary console room. The Doctor nodded as if he'd read her thoughts.
'Yes. The uniform. It was Susan's.'
Ace's ears pricked up. 'Girlfriend?'
The Doctor laughed almost scornfully. 'She was my first travelling companion. We were… we are from the same planet. I enrolled her in that school when I came to Earth with the Hand of Omega. We saw so much in our time together. But she left me. As they all do. As you will… And do you know, Ace, I don't think a day passes when I don't think of her.'
'What are you trying to say, Doctor?'
He shrugged. 'I miss her, I suppose. I miss… my family. In whatever sense of the word. There've been so many over the years. Ian and Barbara. Sarah. Jo. Dear Jamie… I whisk them up and give them a quick turn around the Universe but they all go in the end. And I'm left… ultimately alone.'
Ace found herself blinking back tears. He's just like the rest of us, she thought.
'Let me get this straight, Doctor. Are you talking about retiring?'
The Doctor smiled. 'I suppose I am, yes. Settling down somewhere. For a few centuries at least. Somewhere away from death and disaster. Far from the madding crowd.'
Privately, Ace thought the Doctor was incapable of living a quiet life, like that old woman in the Agatha Christie books. Wherever she goes, people get bumped off.
'Perhaps it's time I went home. To Gallifrey.'
Ace was amazed. 'But you're always telling me what a dull hole it is. All those geriatrics swarming around doing nothing all day. Isn't that why you left in the first place?'
'One of the reasons.'
'So what's changed?' said Ace.
'I have. I mean… all these years of poking my nose into other people's business. Perhaps I should try and sort things out back there. It's corrupt and it's a bureaucratic nightmare but its heart is in the right place. I think it's time I stopped shirking my responsibilities.'
For once in her life, Ace could think of absolutely nothing to say.
The café door burst open and a tall Asian man with shoulder-length black hair strode inside. Ace was struck by the appealing openness of his finely sculpted face but thought it a shame he masked his features with such an ugly moustache.
Vijay Degun ran his fingers through his soaking hair and grinned at Mrs Crithin behind the counter. 'Could I use your phone, Mrs Crithin? We had a bit of an emergency up at the station last night and it blew all our phone lines. I need to get through to Cambridge.'
Ace looked out of the window and noticed the big green Land Rover in which Vijay had arrived.
'There's a phone box down the road, you know, love,' said Mrs Crithin, 'but you're welcome to use mine.'
'I tried that one but it's out of order as well.'
Mrs Crithin frowned and led Vijay into the back of the café. Ace looked at the Doctor but he seemed disinterested and deep in thought. She crept up to the counter and leaned across. Vijay was just visible in a little alcove under the stairs, fiddling with the receiver of Mrs Crithin's phone. He frowned and tapped the instrument against his cupped hand. Something was wrong. He talked to Mrs Crithin for a few minutes and then ran back into the café.
'Thanks anyway,' he called behind him. 'All the lines must be down. Probably the weather!'
He almost ran into Ace as he barged towards the door.
'Oh sorry,' he said, his eyes already looking beyond Ace to the door. He paused on the threshold and the rain buffeted him. Then, wrapping his overcoat around him, he dashed from the café towards The Shepherd's Cross.
'Did you hear that, Doctor?' said Ace excitedly.
'All the phone lines are down. We're cut off!' Ace tried to sound bubbly in the hope of cheering the Doctor up.
'Er… Ace,' he said in a quiet voice, 'I was wondering whether I could ask you a favour.'
'Yeah, of course. Anything.'
'I need some time to myself. To do some thinking. I was wondering - well… '
Ace smiled. 'Here's two bob, get yourself to the pictures? Yeah, I understand, Doctor. I'll occupy myself for a bit. Where will you be?'
The Doctor stood up and put on his hat. 'I'm going to that monastery over on the moor. Good places to think, monasteries.'
'I'll see you in The Shepherd's Cross this evening. Shall we say eight o'clock? Sorry to leave you in the lurch like this.'
'Eight o'clock, in the pub. Got you. Are you buying?'
The Doctor grinned, gripped her arm affectionately and stepped out into the rain. Ace watched his little figure, blurred by the downpour, as he walked out of the village. She sighed heavily.
Now what was she going to do? She had enough trouble keeping herself occupied in the middle of London, never mind in this hole. And this might be 1968 but she doubted whether Crook Marsham ever did much swinging. Still, there were compensations. That lad on the bike for one. She smiled.
There was a long-drawn-out grumbling noise and Ace looked down at her stomach. Breakfast was a good place to start. She went up to the counter and beamed at Mrs Crithin.
'Three egg sandwiches and another cup of tea, please.'
Lawrence Yeadon put down his tea towel and took his wife's hand.
'Are you sure you're all right?'
Betty smiled thinly at him. Her eyes were misting over. It was obvious she hadn't yet recovered from the night's tears.
'I'm all right. Honestly, Lol.'
Lawrence shook his head and moved to serve the old man who was impatiently tapping his ring finger against his empty beer glass.
'I'll serve Mr Medcalfe. You go and lie down.'
Betty protested but Lawrence held up his hand. 'Quite apart from the fact that I'm worried about you, you're not exactly presenting the image of barmaid of the month looking like that, are you?'
Betty shook her head, defeated.
'Now go on. Have a nap. You'll feel better for it.'
In truth, Betty was glad to leave the smoky bar and be alone with her thoughts. Robin wouldn't be back from work for a couple of hours and the upstairs of the pub was pleasantly quiet and warm. Betty glanced around the corner of Robin's bedroom and smiled at the devastated jumble of clothes and bedsheets. Not a stickler for neatness like his dad or his Uncle Alf.
Alf. Betty thought of her brother again and tears pricked her eyes. She fondled the silver photo frame which she kept on her dressing table. Auntie Jean and her mum, grinning falsely at a camera on some faraway summer holiday. Black and white seagulls circled in a black and white sky.
Why couldn't she stop thinking about Alf? He'd been dead for over twenty years. Guilt hung about her neck like an albatross.
Betty slipped off her shoes and walked across the thickly carpeted hallway to the bathroom. She turned on the tap and gorgeously hot water thudded into the pink porcelain. A few drops of syrupy bath oil completed the process and Betty felt a thrill of happy anticipation at the prospect of a restful soak. She stayed to watch the bubble bath froth from under the taps and then returned to the bedroom.
A mile away, at the tracking station, Dr Hawthorne stood up sharply as a fresh burst of data stormed through the room, sending computers and tracers haywire. He dashed to the internal phone in order to alert Dr Cooper. The line was dead. He cursed and ran from the room.
Betty took off her clothes with careful deliberation, as if she were engaged in some sort of ritual. The towelling bathrobe which she put on had been a present from Lawrence's sister Margie. It was a little too big but the freshly laundered, fluffy material made her feel warm and secure.
She still couldn't keep her mind off Alf. His image seemed to hover before her eyes like a projected film. She walked to the bathroom and stopped dead.
Under the frothy foam, seemingly deep, deep down in the water, something was moving.
Panic and a scream began to rise in her throat. A hand was fumbling its way out of the water: a vile, filthy hand, its flesh sunburnt and blistered, black scum and mould under its fingernails. And as it grasped the side of the bath, and an equally appalling body hauled itself out, Betty let go of her senses and slipped gratefully into a dead faint.
The thing in the bath hauled itself to its feet, sending water cascading on to the floor. It was a man, or the remains of a man, wearing a dark blue uniform and a filthy white sweater. The hair was lank and hung in a great wet slap over the mottled, fish-flesh white forehead. The lips were pulled back in a ghastly grin of decay beneath two empty, empty sockets, speckled and rimmed with black blood. In her shock, Betty could have been forgiven for not recognising the creature. But, in point of fact, over twenty years late, her brother Alf had come home to stay…