Chapter 1 - Tunnelling to Freedom by A.J. Hall
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Crowned with lilies and with laurel they go: but I am not resigned.
Edna St Vincent Millay.
“Shouldn’t ‘ve done it, shouldn’t ‘ve bleeding well done it Breakin’ her ‘eart, she is, every day, without knowin’ why she’s frettin’ herself into a sliver, and Sylvia can’t see it and won’t see it, and it’s my Donna! What am I supposed to do?”
Geriatric drunks slumped against the wrought-iron pillars in the entrance hall of Cardiff Central Station were all in a night’s work for Andy. He slid his hands behind the old man’s parka-encased shoulders. “Come on, Grandad. Let’s be having you. Can’t sleep here. Corporation bye-laws, see?”
The old man twisted in his grasp, faster than he’d expected, catching him off-balance, staring up at him with dark intense eyes with reddened, sleepless whites.
“Don’t you go calling me ‘Grandad’, you young whippersnapper. Wasn’t for me and plenty like me, you wouldn’t have anyone giving you room for any of your Saucepan Farks and your Welsh Assemblies. No, it’d be all Heil Hitler, and don’t you forget it! So just you show a bit of respect.” He thrust out his chin, rimed with three or four days growth of white beard. The assertiveness was somewhat eroded by the tears welling up behind the old man’s swollen lids.
“Sorry, sir. But if I let you sleep here, then tomorrow there’ll be a dozen, and day after tomorrow I’ll be on a charge. Isn’t fair to ask a man to put himself on jankers, sir, is it?”
The old man, still in his tumbled heap against the pillar tossed off a salute, raising arthritic fingers to the crown of his navy-blue beany hat.
Granted, it might be touching, But now, preserving public order, that was the thing.
“Anyway, what brings you to Cardiff, all the way up from the Big Smoke?” Andy gambled on the accent. Even if he was wrong about his origin the old man had doubtless passed through London on his travels.
“But she was mentioned in dispatches!” The old man was still having his conversation with some invisible other, giving Andy only limited attention. Beside him, P.C Foster (Not a patch on Gwen! Not a patch!) radiated silent disapproval.
“Very distinguished, sir.”
“Don’t give me that bromide, mate!” The old man’s hand flashed out, seizing Andy’s wrist, started to twist it. His skinny, age-withered frame concealed surprising strength: Andy’s eyes watered with the pain.
“I’m warning you, sir -“
“Don’t you -” P.C. Foster chimed in, a trifle later than one might want from an on-the-ball colleague.
“Stop that. Now.” The new voice was familiar – and incredibly irritating. If welcome, all the same. Andy felt almost guilty at the relief surging through him as the old man obeyed the whipped-out command, letting Andy’s wrist fall.
Ignoring both police officers, Captain Jack Harkness crouched down beside the huddled figure on the platform.
“Wilfred? Or do you prefer Wilf? They called you Wilf in the North Africa Campaign, didn’t they? Wilf the Wizard. Mott the mechanic. The man who kept the tanks going on spit and elbow-grease. Enormous stars they have in the desert, aren’t they amazing? The skies there, they look like nowhere else.”
The old man tilted his face upwards. “You. You tell ‘em. They don’t believe an old man, But she was a bleedin’ hero and I’ll be damned if I’ll see it all pissed away down the drain – pardon my French, Miss.”
P.C Foster treated the old man’s belated notice of her with a withering glare. It was wasted: he wasn’t looking in her direction. Just up into the face of the man in the great-coat as though he hoped to read the secrets of the world there. In response, Harkness reached out a hand, laying it gently on the old man’s arm.
“I know, Wilf: I know. For one moment, one shining moment, she was the most important woman in the whole wide universe. Coining epitaphs. That’s his second-best talent.”
The old man’s voice became querulous. “So what’s his best talent, then?”
And Harkness clasped his arm around the old man’s shoulders, drew him to his feet and led him gently out into the soft Welsh night.
Beside him P.C. Foster had plainly already dismissed the odd incident, only relieved it seemed it had resolved itself without the need for paperwork. “Should we be getting on? We’ve wasted enough time here as it is.”
Andy bit back a comment. She’d learn, soon enough, if she stuck with the job.
Nutters. You met them in Cardiff any night of the week. Except, every so often, they were Torchwood.
Alien nutters. Worst sort.
Regrettably, it wasn’t the Polish “helper” who, no doubt thanks to a youth spent under a repressive régime, understood perfectly the proper relationship between prisoner and warder and didn’t try to muddy it with nauseating fake intimacies. Instead, it was Shelagh, a large, sloppy woman from Walsall with a skin like a rhinoceros’s and no concept of irony.
She breezed into my room without knocking. “Now, we need to make a special effort to look extra specially pretty today, don’t we? And can we remember why?”
She beamed encouragement, as if to a backwards four-year old.
How long it had been since they’d brought me to this place? I couldn’t remember a time before I’d become so feeble and so fragile, before every movement set up shivers of pain through my body, when standing veins and liver spots had not disfigured my hands, when the sun had given warmth rather than momentary ease for my bone-deep chill.
Living under deep cover is hard.
You must change yourself from the cell level upwards. Even your dreams must reflect your cover’s sub-conscious, not your own. When I was in France I could have recounted the number and spacing of the patches on the sails of my cousin Etienne’s fishing boat, recalled the joints of fingers aching as my sail-maker’s palm drove the enormous needle through the stiff, stinking, canvas to repair split seams. I would have tears in my eyes as I recalled my sister Marie’s losing battle with little Philippe’s diphtheria. My eyes would light with remembered gusto as I recounted all the blows and counter-blows fought in the village’s huge internal feud of the later ’20s, concerning the design of the local memorial to Les Perdus.
Not bad for a girl brought up in Golders Green, of Russian/Lithuanian stock on the one side and from a raucous tribe of Dublin brawlers, hack journalists and indifferent poets on the other. A girl, too, whose total previous experience of France had been a summer’s language school in Deauville, and a couple of holidays scrambling up the less challenging ascents of the Massif Central with a party of cousins who were keen on that sort of thing.
Shelagh’s expression changed at my lack of response, became disapproving. “Now, now, Naomi. No being Miss Frowny-Face.” And then, God help us all, she burst into song, dipping and swirling across my room just out of time with her tuneless warblings, like a circus elephant in a patterned overall. “The sun has got his hat on! Hip-hip-hip hooray! The sun has got his hat on and he’s coming out today!”
She fetched up against my window and drew the curtains back. As luck would have it a short, violent hailstorm had just begun beating against the windows out of a pewter sky. I suppressed a snort of laughter. Being undercover means not giving the authorities anything they can hold against you, nothing they can use to pick you out of the crowd. Certainly never letting the enemy see when you find them ridiculous. Sometimes you must foster someone’s illusion of power over you to prevent its turning into the real thing.
Shelagh looked at me. “Well?”
I tried to shape the words; the numb side of my face made the effort almost overwhelming. They told me it had been a stroke, told me I was making ‘A splendid recovery’. I didn’t believe them. Not on either count. Nerve gas. Or botulism toxins, injected directly into muscle tissue. But that would mean that someone was onto me, someone suspected my game. All the more reason to give them nothing to confirm their suspicion.
“Vis – visitor.” The corner of my mouth dropped a little after I’d got the word out; spittle trailed down my chin, its spider-touch an intolerable irritation. If Shelagh had any notion of doing her job properly she’d have noticed and handed me a tissue from the package which lay handy to her left hand. However, she continued to beam inanely at me, without doing anything to help. My left arm was still more-or-less useless but I raised my right sleeve, brushing my mouth clean with the quilted cuff of the dressing gown, a slovenliness I detested even while forced to perform it.
Her face split in an approving smile. “Yes! That’s right! Your young man’s coming to see you.” She tittered at her own witticism.
He passed himself off to the authorities here as my great-nephew. I could have imagined Catherine having such a grandson, but she’d died of peritonitis before her sixteenth birthday. Also, judging by the empty-eyed, desolate girl in school uniform, a stranger to all of us, who had appeared at the funeral and then vanished silently away, the secrets my sister had taken to her grave were unlikely to have included men.
As for my brother – well, no-one who knew my family would have thought him anything of Lionel’s getting, even one generation removed.
Still, it did as well as anything, as a cover story. He visited three or four times a year and, though he never said anything inconsistent with our supposed relationship, my heart always beat quicker when I knew a visit was in the offing. Perhaps this time would reveal to me why I was here. Surely a mission so secret that it has to be concealed even from one tasked with carrying it out must be of supreme importance?
Despite the imperative of secrecy, sometimes I toyed with the bitter fantasy of tying Shelagh to a chair, gagging her and – somehow overcoming my hampered speech - sharing with her that most classified of classified secrets.
You call him my young man. It is a joke, though not the same joke you think it is. Appearances are deceptive and he is older than I. I was never in love with him, though we made love, once, up on the mountainside, waiting for a signal not due for hours, rocks poking through dry soil and the sharp scent of crushed herbs breathing up from beneath us. Five minutes later a random patrol all but stumbled over us. That was the night I killed my seventeenth Nazi; the night before my twenty-first birthday. Half a thrust later and he would have killed me.
We women of the SOE took precautions, naturally, but I doubt you could say we practised “safe sex”. How could we? Those were not safe times.
I wish I had ever managed to feel that alive since.
There came a knock at the door. I managed a quick nod of assent before Shelagh leapt to open it; she hardly noticed, but it mattered to me. Such trivial assertions of agency were all I had left – at least, so it felt, on those days when faith quailed and I doubted even the existence of my mission, believing I had been parked here to wait out my last few years and then die, at the least possible inconvenience to everyone around me.
They stood in the doorway. Two of them; when he had only ever come alone before. Surely this was the sign for which I had been waiting so long. I read it in his arched brows, in the secret half-wink as he entered the room. True, the man behind him seemed hardly the stuff of legend; white-haired, stubbly-chinned, dressed like a labourer in corduroy pants and a knitted hat. It didn’t matter. I had seen a hundred or more less plausible, less prepossessing warriors. This was the hour, so this must be the man.
“Thank you,” my ersatz great-nephew said, holding the door open with infinite politeness for Shelagh to leave. I don’t know what she’d expected. Surely she could hardly have thought I needed a chaperone? Still, she goggled, non-plussed for a moment, before scurrying out, squeaking mindlessly.
I had little attention to spare for her discomfiture. I was awaiting my call to action.
“Naomi, this is a guy you need to meet. Sergeant Wilfred Mott. He was at Al-Alamein, with the armoured divisions. There’s this little problem he wants us to help him with.”
It occurred to me there was another thing I should tell Shelagh about my soi-disant great nephew.
In France, we used to call him l’Ange du Mort. You should have prayed for death before ever you saw him put on his true colours.
When he turned his key in the lock he’d half hoped that there wouldn’t be anyone there, but the silence of the burglar alarm foretold either that someone was home or that a long discussion with Chiswick police station would feature in his near future.
Actually, it turned out to be Donna, slumped on the sofa in front of the TV with the now-familiar air of dejection which never failed to tear at his heart. He moved into the kitchen, hefted the electric kettle to judge there was enough water in it and switched it on before venturing back into the living room and sitting down next to her on the settee.
“Hey!” he said. “Chin up, tea’ll be along in a minute. No go at the agency, love?” He stretched out his arm, curved it around her shoulders. Her long, lean body snuggled up against him as she had when she was five.
“First place – they told me I was overqualified. Second place, they told me I should have passed French ‘O’ level. Third place – they’d got the receivers in. The Agency hadn’t bothered to let me know.”
“Ah.” After a moment he added, feelingly, “Bastards.”
She shrugged, brushing off her day as if one could twitch away cosmic injustice with a muscle movement. “Anyway. Where’ve you been all this time? You dirty stop-out.”
There were so many things he might have said. Guilt and the fate of galaxies weighed heavy on his tongue.
“Oh, I went to an old people’s home.”
She swirled round, all in a fire of red rebellion. “You what? Look, if Mum’s been saying anything again -“
He raised his hand. “Donna! Only way they’d get me in one of them places is over my dead body, so don’t you go fretting about that. You’ve got enough to worry about as it is. No: someone I know asked me to go along with him, look up someone he served with, in the War.”
She nodded. “Oh. British Legion stuff.”
He let that slide. “To be honest, I think he needed a bit of moral support. Comes to us all in the end, o’course, but it must bring it home to you seeing someone in a wheel-chair, hardly able to get two words out, when you can remember them taking out a Nazi machine gun post with a side-arm. From the way he tells it, she must have been quite a girl, back in the day.”
“She?” Donna sat up, her attention caught at last.
“Didn’t I say? Special Operations Executive. One of the lasses they parachuted into France, undercover, to help the Resistance.”
Donna snorted. “Must’ve passed her French ‘O’ level, then. Been me, back then, and you can bet I’d have sat out the War behind a typewriter, making sure Britain’s vital Spam reserves were accounted for.”
He’d snorted a laugh before he saw Donna’s eyes, bright as gun-sights, staring him down. But it didn’t stop the joke being funny and anyway. Donna was like that, had always been like that. She could make you crease up at the same time as she got you wanting to advance on the barricades with a burning banner.
Wilf wondered if, perhaps, it was their fault Donna had never made anything much of her life (“except being a jewel. My jewel. My Donna.”). Sylvia, of course, was adamant that anything wrong in Donna’s makeup, she’d inherited from her father, but Wilf begged leave to doubt.
He’d liked Jim, anyway. Not that it mattered, now. He paused for a second, making sure he had the right, casual tone.
“There’s one thing. They need a temp. My friend went into the office, something about the bills, and it turned out to be in a right old shambles. You give them a ring in the morning, love, and who knows?”
A long hard pause and then she nodded. He let out a covert breath.
We were down at the far end of the gardens, near the pond. Shelagh hadn’t wanted to push me so far, but I’d managed, somehow, to persuade her into it, though resentment hung off her like a cloud. Fortunately for me, she was a silent sulker.
I saw the woman approaching before Shelagh did. Long waves of auburn hair, a sharp, long, narrow face like a red setter. And something – something almost like a second shadow about her.
Something on her back. No: the remnants of something which has once been there and has since been torn away.
Fear trembled along every nerve; fear and the familiar, unexpected adrenaline rush of sheer exhilaration. The red-head approached, favoured Shelagh with a curt nod which suggested she’d already been introduced to her and hadn’t enjoyed the experience much, and then extended her hand to me.
“Donna Noble. I’ve just started temping in the office here. You must be Doctor Rubenstein. My granddad Wilf asked me to look you up if I got the chance.”
Shelagh wore her special, patented, sour lemon face. “Now, now, we’re all much too good friends round here to be bothering with all that formality. And Naomi gave up all that ‘Doctor’ business long ago, didn’t you, dear?”
A most peculiar expression flitted across Miss Noble’s face. She looked like someone who has just had an inspiration about a cryptic crossword clue and is trying to juggle the letters to make it fit.
Shelagh dropped her voice, though she remained perfectly audible, and hissed in Miss Noble’s ear, “Anyway, Naomi was never a real doctor, you know. Not like a GP.”
During an over-long life I’d met this peculiar delusion about the status of a D.Litt too often for it to cause any particular irritation. With Shelagh, my cup had long since run over with irritation, in any event.
Miss Noble advanced firmly, grasped the handles of my wheelchair, glanced at Shelagh and said, “I’ve still got half an hour of my break left. I’ll take Doctor Rubenstein back in when I’ve finished, if you like.”
Shelagh looked doubtful; no doubt she thought herself a health care worker, and abandoning her charge to a lowly book-keeping temp went against the grain. On the other hand, it was growing chilly out here and no doubt there would be tea and celebrity gossip magazines waiting for her inside. She consigned me to Miss Noble’s care, and headed briskly off back towards the house. Donna – Miss Noble – dropped to the garden seat beside me, looking sidelong at me under the curtain of her long auburn hair.
“Well,” she said, “as my Granddad says, don’t know what you bothered to fight the war for at all.”
“Always – always worth fighting. No – surrender.”
She smiled; a quick vivid smile which transformed her face, like a kingfisher flashing into view beneath the willow branches above the Cam on a summer’s day.
“He used to say something like …”
Her voice trailed off, her eyes suddenly lost focus. The Home has made me familiar with practically every variety of dementia known to man. Most likely if I asked her who “he” might be she would deny ever having mentioned the man. Sufferers can never quite conceal how such questions wrack them, though. They sense the enormity of their loss, even while its nature eludes them and an uncaring world mocks their very confusion.
My problems have always been physical, thank God. And I have kept certain – resources – by my side in case that situation should ever change. In France, I became used to taking comfort from feeling the slight weight of those pills, secreted inside my clothing, each time fear threatened to overwhelm me. That same comfort has taken me through many dark times since. It’s not just superstition – I’ve taken care to renew them over the years as opportunity offered. Not that I’ve had access to laboratories for a good many years now. Cyanide, though, has a very long sell-by date.
I shivered, though not because of the chill air of the garden. The sight of that young, mobile, expressive face contorted with confusion, seeing self-assured Miss Noble revealed as someone who has just found the planks of her mental attic rotten beneath her feet, struck me as wholly obscene.
Something very wrong here.
I recalled Jack Harkness’s face last time I’d seen him – recalled, too, the banked, incandescent intensity of that corporal from the Armoured Divisions, Wilf Mott. Miss Noble’s grandfather, it appeared. I cursed myself for being a fool.
Something very wrong has been done here.
Natural disasters have never been much in Harkness’s line – there are always too many unnatural disasters clamouring for his attention. Illness might have evoked his pity, but it would take injury – deliberate, premeditated injury – to waken his sense of justice. And for him, in turn, waken me; the deepest of all his sleeper agents.
We’d had little in common, in our shared past, save for one thing. A preoccupation with justice which almost amounted to an obsession.
Two things in common, perhaps. I suspect we each focus on justice by way of compensation. After all, we have both been demonstrably short-changed in the mercy department.
“So, how’d your first day go, love?”
“Have we got a soldering iron?”
The spare room, with the cupboards where the tools were kept, looked like the aftermath of a burglary carried out by a particularly disorganised gang. Donna, kneeling amid the chaos on the floor, looked up from under the curtain of her red hair, the glint of fanatic enthusiasm in her eyes. Something inside him loosened; he found himself having to brush the back of his hand across suddenly watery eyes.
“Might be one in the shed, maybe.”
“Look it out for me, will y’? ” She scrambled to her feet, scrabbling for her car-keys in her hand bag. “Gotta get down to Maplins, pick up some connectors, transistors ‘n that. See you.”
Wilf blinked as she passed him like a whirlwind and he heard the front door slam and then the noise of the car starting up. He stretched a hand for the phone, lifted the handset, had dialled the code for Cardiff before he thought better of it and hung up. Most likely they’d have no more idea than he had of what might be happening, and anyway, he’d better have found that soldering iron before Donna got back or Sylvia started sticking her nose in things.
One thing had been certain; before she’d started – travelling – Donna wouldn’t have known one end of a soldering iron from the next. Electronics and a light in her eyes again, something must have happened today. Thank God for the Captain – and no-one back in the old days would have expected to hear Wilf Mott say that about any officer, still less a Yank.
He found himself humming as he made his way to the back door. It was only after a few moments that he put words to the tune.
So we’re saying goodbye to them all
The long and the short and the tall –
He looked back at the photographs of her on the mantelpiece and his heart skipped a beat.
“Gwen, what the -?”
Ianto turned his head sideways, trying to see whether the writhing entanglement of green and yellow glass tubing sitting on the base of Gwen’s workstation looked any more coherent that way up. She smiled at him.
“Present, see. Rhys’s nephew went on a school-trip to London, and he brought it back. All the kids were buying them, kind of a craze, like. Well, to be honest, he brought it back for his Mam, and I don’t think she fancied it in the house, really. Said she imagined it wriggling, every time she turned her back to get on with the hoovering. So she gave it to us, and Rhys said he thought I might like it, to brighten up the office. Nice to get the chance to see a touch of greenery about the place – at least, ‘til I think it’s safe to go back into the conservatory.”
He felt himself flushing, though there was nothing more than gentle teasing beneath Gwen’s tones.
“Say, is that a triffid on your desk or is it just pleased to see you?”
Familiar mocking tones came from above. They looked up to see Jack leaning against the rail, his arms crossed.
He descended the stairs towards Gwen’s workstation, picked the artefact up, turned it over and over in his hands. His voice remained as casual as ever, but Ianto fancied there was something about the set of his shoulders under that crisp blue shirt, something tense.
“Mind if I borrow it for a bit, Gwen? I’ve always fancied having something green and phallic about the office.”
She looked up at him, eyebrows raised. “Normal bosses settle for cacti.”
“Eew-ouch. Whatever they may say about me, I’ve never been a guy who makes the same mistake twice. Specially not mistakes that need tweezers to put right. So, say I wanted to get one of these for myself, where should I look? Did your nephew say?”
Gwen narrowed her eyes. “You up to something?”
Jack looked at his most innocent. Ianto made a mental note to cancel all non-urgent personal engagements for the foreseeable future, update his will and get in some gun practice on the range. From the look of her, Gwen was going through the same mental process – together with, presumably, adding up how much pizza she had in the freezer at home and thinking up some reassuring platitudes to feed to Rhys about her whereabouts.
However, all she said was, “Dunno – but here’s the box it came in.”
She pulled out a small cardboard box from her desk drawer. Jack fished about inside it for a second or so, and extricated a crumpled leaflet. He read it, and let out a low whistle.
“Well? You going to share it with us – sir? We are a team, after all. Least, so you keep telling us.”
Jack paused for a moment and then nodded. He passed the leaflet across to Ianto. The paper was cheap, the typeface was cramped, difficult to read, slightly smudged. If it had accompanied some garish plastic horror, packed by the tens of thousands in some factory in the Pearl River delta and retailing for £1.50 on one of the stalls in Barry market it would have caused no comment, but packed in with this, this exquisite, fascinating, unsettling thing –
Ianto traced the artefact’s intricacies with one intrigued forefinger.
“Put it down, Yanto, and read what’s on the leaflet. I’ve set up the recorders. Why don’t you give Gwen and me a thrill, give it your best shot at the Richard Burtons, huh?”
“Would this be what you had in mind, sir? ” He stood, hands by his side, feet apart, like he’d been taught at school, rounding his tongue over the words, mellow and rich as plum-cake.
“But that was nothing to what things came out
From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder - “
Jack exhaled. “Yanto! If you’re not good, I’ll read you the Torchwood archives version of that incident, as a bedtime story. While you’re over my knee. You’d not see the funny side if you’d had to Retcon the whole of the Lleyn peninsula, and then realised you’d managed to miss a major inter-war poet whose version’s been included in every anthology published ever since. Read the frigging leaflet, ok?”
Thus admonished, Ianto blinked and turned to the leaflet.
Thank you for choosing to commemorate your visit to the exhibition today by buying a Grow-Glo. For us at Grow-Glo Enterprises, a souvenir should be more than simply a memory of an event gone by; it should an organic part of a living whole, as a conker remembers the horse-chestnut from which it fell, or the sea-shell, when held against the ear, reminds one of the ceaseless lift and swirl of the oceans. Take good care of your little Grow-Glo – make sure it has plenty of sunlight, for only in sunlight can life flourish. We hope you have a long and close future together.
He heard a strangled sound over to his left; Gwen, with her fingers down her throat, pretending to throw up into the waste-paper basket. Jack’s expression, though, was cold; deadly serious.
“Gwen – take a break, look up your sister-in-law, find out where it was he got it, what this exhibition was. I’ll be in my office. There’s a coupla calls I have to make.”
resistancegrrl: You up to something?
resistancegrrl: Don’t call for weeks, then all over place like rash. Don’t trust coincidences.
Yankcap: that was quick!
resistancegrrl: new keyboard. Special 1 hand. Donna’s idea. Electronics whiz.
Yankcap: Donna? U got right girl?
resistancegrrl: How many stroppy redheads do you know?
Yankcap: do aliens count?
Resistancegrrl: Scrub question. What “S” goes with “Screwdriver”?
resistancegrrl: Something D. said today. Thought crossword clue, but not. Worried her.
Yankcap: Should do.
resistancegrrl: something wrong? Thought so. Shd she see doctor?
resistancegrrl: no need to shout.
Yankcap: Sorry. But last thing she needs. Trust me.
resistancegrrl: Suppose 1st time for everything.
Yankcap: Do something, pls?
Yankcap: U in London. Need something from the V&A. U just girl 4 job. Inside track.
resistancegrrl: You want me to burgle V&A???
Yankcap: just gift shop. Take Donna with U.
Yankcap: Great place, V&A. Was there on opening day. Personal invite Prince Albert.
resistancegrrl: You knew Prince Albert?
Yankcap: Sure. Nice chap. Wife didn’t understand him.
resistancegrrl: & you did?
Yankcap: official secret. Lips sealed.
Yankcap: tell U one thing 4 free. No truth in rumour. All urban myth.
resistancegrrl: Harkness, you couldn’t shock me when I was 20. Try it on yr young man instead.
Yankcap: Who told U about Ianto?
resistancegrrl: Ha! Guessed. Nice name. Local? Anyway, what do I get from V&A?
Yankcap. U’ll see. Harkness out.
I have never attributed to accident anything which can reasonably be assigned to enemy action. Maybe that is why I have survived to my current, unreasonably advanced, old age.
Next day three teenagers from the Chiswick Boys’ Brigade arrived with a minibus and driver. They alleged they were here to take a group from the Home on a “mystery tour”, as part of their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award preparations. My suspicions sharpened when Donna recognised one of the lads; a cherubic 14-year old bruiser, the son of some neighbours who, influenced by either extreme post-modernism or sheer callous cruelty, had christened him “Derek”.
Accordingly, I was one of the first to volunteer for the trip and Donna – who’d reduced the chaos in the office to sparkling efficiency in less than a week, and was starting to get rather bored – volunteered to assist me. I suspected, to be honest, her grandfather had tipped her off there was something in the wind.
The intervention of the Chiswick Boys’ Brigade convinced me that the game was afoot. When the minibus finally drew up outside that familiar Fair Isle sweater of a building which houses the Victoria and Albert Museum my suspicions were confirmed up to the hilt.
Donna assumed possession of my wheelchair at the foot of the ramp with a smooth assertiveness that left Shelagh squeaking in indignation. Just ahead of her, young Derek assisted Mr Walcott. Gerry Walcott came from an East End crime family of the kind sentimentalised by the less insightful news media, where bosses always insisted on their enforcers wearing clean shirts and using their razors on their own chins prior to deploying them in debt collection or urban clearance. Walcott and I tolerated each other without liking; his family’s notions of keeping the East End free of riff-raff had led to his uncles and mine squaring up against each other across Cable Street, back in prehistory.
We passed up the ramp and in through the Cromwell Road entrance. That familiar, immensely complex museum smell washed over us, compounded of polish and preservative; well-behaved humanity; a touch of fresh coffee and, underlying everything, the vast, unfathomable smell of the ages. It carried a weight of nostalgia so intense it almost managed to transcend the laws of space and time. Nearly fifteen years since I had locked up my office upstairs for the last time and descended the great staircase, carrying two decades of memories in a cardboard box, topped with a card bearing nearly a hundred varied wishes for a long and happy retirement.
I smiled, grimly. Long – my retirement had certainly been that. Most of the signatories of that card had since followed me into oblivion. I didn’t expect there’d be any of them around to welcome me back.
“Flipping ‘eck. Is that what they are lettin’ out as Art these days? Time was when I’ve bought more artistic arrangements for ninepence off a jellied eel stall. And had mash and liquor thrown in.”
I followed the direction of Gerry Walcott’s uplifted hand and winced. The writing mass of blueish, greenish and yellowish glass tubing suspended from the ceiling above the Information Desk looked like something an artistic tapeworm might have conceived had its host ingested a significant quantity of LSD some hours previously. Whether by some trick of the light or because of the manner of its suspension it seemed to be moving. At least, when one looked at it and then looked away again one could not swear that those multiple tentacles remained in precisely the same relation to each other as they had previously been.
Donna came to a dead stop. Someone walking too close behind us bumped into us and swore, loudly. When Donna – fiery, eloquent Donna – failed to rise to the provocation I knew there was something wrong.
“You all right, Dons?” Derek, showing an unexpected neighbourly streak, came bustling back to join us. I gestured with my good hand and he, uniting common-sense with common humanity, turned my chair round so I was facing her. I gulped. She looked possessed – the only word I could possibly use to describe how her face somehow flickered, as if two different personalities were fighting for command of her body, and neither would let the other gain mastery.
She ignored my half-formulated question. Instead she made a decisive shooing gesture towards the rest of the party. Derek looked back hesitantly at her, but she shook her head. He moved past us, assisting Mr Walcott into the depths of the museum.
“What the -?” Shelagh, on cue, butting in where she wasn’t wanted. Donna favoured her with a dazzling, ingenuous, inhuman smile.
“Just bear with us a minute, Shelagh. Naomi needs to pay a little visit, catch up with you soon, ok?”
Shelagh nodded understandingly and scurried off. As soon as she’d whisked out of sight Donna pushed me behind a glass case containing a suit of 16th century German jousting armour, handmade for a short, rich, vain man who’d had much to over-compensate for in the codpiece department.
“Right, you used to work here, didn’t you?” Even her voice had changed; whatever had taken up residence inside her must have gained strength. Letting it know I suspected its presence at this stage would probably be the last mistake I ever made. I nodded, slowly.
“Good. You need to get me into the staff quarters. I’m betting that somewhere on these premises there’s a pretty well equipped laboratory, where you do all the restoration and analysis, yes?”
I nodded again. A question, here, would hardly be out of place, whatever I was addressing it to. I moistened my lips; a little dribble spilled out of the corner of my mouth. Donna – the Donna-thing – wiped it away with a quick, gentle touch of a tissue.
“What do I need it for?” She – he – it completed my sentence as if reading my mind.
“Weaponry. I have to save the world. And I don’t want to be bleedin’ well interrupted while I’m doing it. Not by that thing - ” She jerked an expressive thumb in the general direction of the entrance hall. “And not by the Doctor, either. Though I could do with having a couple of words with him, if he does show up.”
The reference to “the Doctor” unlocked long buried memories. During all the time we’d served together in France I’d only ever seen Harkness drunk once, after a particularly bad raid in which we’d lost five. By the time we reached the place where the Gestapo had abandoned the wreckage, all except Harkness had died of their injuries. Harkness himself gave up the ghost as we were moving him out of there. His death was not unexpected, given the mess the torturers had made of him. His return from the dead a few minutes later, without a scratch on him, was a significantly bigger surprise. To be honest, it shook my nerve so badly I produced one of our precious, hoarded bottles of brandy and proposed we have a stiff one. When he failed to seize the obvious opening for a crude innuendo I realized what a state he was in – not at what had been done to him, which he seemed to have an odd, Calvinistic notion was his justly earned reward for past sins, but for failing to save the others.
As the shared bottle ebbed towards the last dregs he started to talk; random, bitter, incoherent nonsense born more out of pain and guilt than out of brandy. About massed battle-fleets swarming between the stars, about creatures more ruthless and more terrible than the Gestapo dreamed of in their wildest hopes; about a man named Grey and a woman named Rose. And, once, about “the Doctor” – a passing reference which haunted his eyes and twisted his lips, and about which I dared not enquire further.
Now, it seemed, enlightenment might be at hand. I let Donna push me down into the bowels of the building at a frantic rate; somehow she seemed to be able to intuit the windings of corridors with only minimal guidance from me. The laboratory door loomed up, with its radiation and bio-hazard warnings stark in black and yellow. We aren’t the BM, of course, but a certain percentage of the artefacts passing into the V&A do come out of tombs, nonetheless, and there’s one thing you can be certain about; whoever is in a tomb certainly died of something.
Donna breezed ruthlessly in. It being Saturday there were only two technicians working, only one of whom looked up at our arrival, the other being absorbed in some delicate operation involving – at a guess – dilute acids and ancient Scythian goldwork.
The more alert scientist opened his mouth, but Donna forestalled him. “Just carry on for the present. Dr Rubenstein and I weren’t planning to disturb you.” She cocked her head on one side, peering up at the tall windows which were exactly as I remembered them; caked with the immemorial grime of South Kensington. “Just doing some background planning for the BBC interview – Yup, we’ll definitely have to have supplemental lighting wands in here, even if Jeremy Paxman does claim they make him look as if he’s got terminal jaundice. Better have you over here, Dr Rubenstein, that’ll give the best angle on both of you. Computer on, I think; gives a bit of visual interest in the lower angle of the shot.”
She pushed me up to a desk on which stood a computer terminal, and tapped a couple of keys. To my somewhat alarmed amusement she proceeded to go through museum IT security like a hot knife through butter, summoning up on screen what looked like an inventory of laboratory supplies, while still chattering away.
“Of course, in the time we’ve got for the interview, we can’t expect you actually to demonstrate the Schwartz-Metterklume technique, Dr Rubenstein – anyway, our insurers would never allow it, not with Paxo in the splatter zone - but if we don’t have the right bench equipment our Complaints Department will never hear the last of it.” She leaned over and caught the alert scientist’s arm – he’d been hanging around us with a ruffled air, opening and shutting his mouth as though short of oxygen.
“Sorry to trouble you, but do you mind showing me where I can get all the retorts I need? Storerooms over here, aren’t they?”
She started towing him determinedly across the laboratory. Belatedly it occurred to him that the situation smacked somewhat of the irregular.
“Look here, what the Hell’s going on? Who are you people? Can I see your authorisations?”
“Did you get the Chairman’s memo? No? Probably got lost in the internal again; honestly, they’d do better to use carrier pigeons. Come to think of it, judging by those windows, you probably do. Anyway, here.” Her hand reached inside her jacket pocket just as they rounded the door into the storeroom. A second later came a wail of panic and Donna shot out, dashing across the laboratory to the bench where the other scientist had remained resolutely intent on his analysis throughout.
“Come on, mush. Your colleague just keeled over, fainted. We’ve got to get him out into the fresh air. Can’t lift him myself.”
The scientist looked down at the phone on his desk. I saw his hand start to stray towards it, could almost hear the ingrained safety training tape running through his head – SUDDEN UNCONSCIOUSNESS – LAB ACCIDENT – GAS? – CALL FOR HELP – FIND BREATHING APPARATUS -
Donna’s voice rose to an ear-splitting shriek. “Stop faffing! I’ve got to get him out of there. Doctor Rubenstein can do the phoning – I need muscle.”
Force of personality triumphed. He vanished into the storeroom. Seconds later I heard the familiar thump-whack of an unconscious body being dragged across a high-friction surface.
If I could have spoken, words would still have failed me. Donna emerged from the store-room, dusting her hands, an odd, manic light in her eyes, her normally severe hair rumpled.
“Humans. So fantastically gullible, don’t you just love them?”
Humans. So what are you, then?
Given a few minutes I might even have articulated the question. But at that moment Derek, pushing Mr Walcott, burst in through the door. Walcott winked at me before turning to stare at Donna, whose face changed under his gaze, became the Donna I remembered, not the alien intelligence of the last few minutes.
“So,” Walcott said, “Not too late for the heist, are we?”
“Do I look like a museum robber? Do I?” Donna turned to Derek. “You, tell him. We’ve lived next door but three from your lot since before you were born, and there’s never been anything bent about our family. “
“You mean, apart from that bleedin’ great Fabergé egg your mum’s got on her mantelpiece?” Derek reached inside his jacket, pulled out his mobile phone and flipped it open, jabbing it below Gerry Walcott’s nose. “See what I mean? I snapped it last time we were there. Where’d you get that, eh?”
I caught a glimpse of the image before he shut the phone and knew the answer to his question.
At the sacking of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, 27 October 1917.
According to museum records the egg in question had never been seen since. I had neither the will nor the ability to speak. Donna looked completely non-plussed. Walcott mouthed Go on my son. Young Derek had the floor, an opportunity he did not waste.
“And that Ming vase your ma was growing her daffs in –”
“Derek!” Donna looked exasperated – and wholly human with it. “You’re talking out of the back of your head. Look: I went travelling. I brought a lot of junk back – souvenirs ‘n that. Like you do. That bowl just sort of looks a bit Chinese. I can’t even remember properly where I got it – some sort of faked-up Chinese theme park, with fortune-tellers an’ that. I swear to you on my father’s grave it didn’t come from within a million miles of your actual China – you’d have to be special to think that.”
Derek snorted, disbelieving. “And then there was that chunk of wood your granddad used to wedge open his potting shed window with, what I nicked when I realised I’d got nuthin’ to take to school for the show-and-tell with the archaeologist from the Museum of London. He only told me it was “semi-fossilised Lebanese cedar” with a 2000-year old nail mark in it, din’ ‘e?”
“I’ll tan your hide. Grandad’s been looking for his wedge for months. Says he hasn’t managed to prop the window open the right distance ever since he lost it. What’ve you done with it?”
Derek shrugged. “Sold it to this weird American novelist bloke on eBay. If you only say it’s “alleged to be” a splinter off of the True Cross, they can’t do you for it, can they?”
Donna’s notions of justice predated the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. In fact, they clearly harkened back to the code of Hammurabi. It was only at the interested voice of Gerry Walcott, who had rolled his wheelchair across the laboratory so he could peer into the storerooms, that she desisted.
“Donna? If there ain’t something criminal going on round here, can you explain to an old man how there happen to be these two blokes lying unconscious in this ‘ere cupboard, there’s a love.”
Her hand stole to her mouth. “I expect that would be the chloroform.”
Donna shrugged, her flame-coloured hair tossing back defiantly. “Stuff happens. A gypsy sold me it when I was coming to work today. Thought I was being offered lucky heather, and instead it was this little bottle. Said when I knew what it was, I’d know what to do with it, and I just did. Weird, isn’t it, how you always think gypsies must be Irish? Sounds downright alien when you meet a Welsh one. Have you ever met a Welsh gypsy?”
No, but name me an American gypsy and I will tell you his name. And the place where his vardo is currently resting. Torchwood, Cardiff.
Whatever you might say about Harkness, he is no fool. If one of his team had supplied Donna with the wherewithal to knock out the museum staff then he must be on her side, which meant on the side of whichever alien was – intermittently – directing her consciousness. I gestured towards the terminal.
“You – need -?”
“Brilliant! Oh, you are good, Dr Rubenstein.” Her voice had changed again. Her hands, as they raced across the keyboard, blurred, moving at an inhuman speed, unbelievable even for the self-proclaimed fastest temp in Chsiwick. A quick glance at the screen told me that she’d tapped into the museum’s inventory of stores, and from the way she was highlighting things and making interested little noises at the screen, she plainly found the experience a bit like being let loose in a chocolate factory. Derek, under Walcott’s competent direction, tied up, gagged and stashed the unfortunate two staff members in a convenient cleaning supplies cupboard.
“Can you solder?” Donna’s head came up and she stared straight at Derek. He gawped for a moment but then, cautiously, admitted the charge. She had him at a bench with a bunch of components in seconds. Walcott assisted her to ferry chemicals out of storage. As the preparations advanced they alarmed me more and more. There’s a certain feel to a bomb factory, however improvised. Once felt, you can never mistake it for anything else. I didn’t know what Donna and her resident alien intended, but clearly they weren’t planning on the monstrosity in the Entrance Hall getting up again after it.
I knew we were in for it when Donna drew me away into a corner of the lab.
“Do you trust me?” she said abruptly. I realized the moment for dissembling was over.
I paused. “Don’t – know who – you are. But -“
Harkness and Mott had brought Donna to the Home when I’d been perilously close to letting go, dropping off entirely, finally using the cyanide pills I’d felt the comforting weight of for so long. Trust, in some respects, isn’t the big shiny thing you think it is when you’re young and idealistic. It’s not all for one, and one for all. I’d spent the War, after all, in the company of people who in many pre-War respects I’d not have trusted at all – at least, not trusted to respect my purse, my virtue or my finer feelings. But the one thing I could trust them to do was to die well at my side, should circumstances demand it, and to avenge me should they survive when I did not. That was how I trusted Harkness, and his representative deserved no less of me.
I managed the vestige of a nod.
“Good,” Donna said, and caught my chair, pushing me into the storeroom. For a moment I feared that she might be going to deploy the chloroform on me, from some misguided notion of protecting the infirm, but it turned out it was Derek’s adolescent eyes she was protecting. As soon as we were behind the screen of the half-closed door she whipped off her jumper, revealing a sensible white bra.
“Right,” she said, and began to strap herself round with wiring and two pouches which I had seen them blending outside. I gulped. She looked at me.
“Know what this is?”
I nodded again. Suicide charges.
“It has to be taken down. One way and another. So I need a mate I can trust to hold the deadman’s switch. You can’t go in there with me, but you’ll be holding the gate. Any interference – from anyone, friend or foe - just drop it. That’s all I’m asking you to do. And – don’t get sentimental about it.”
I must have looked my disbelief, because she laughed; a real, Donna, talcum-powder-up-the nose giggling fit. “Oh, I picked the right one for that, didn’t I?” She whipped her jumper back on and raised her voice, “Derek! You finished with that? Well, look smart about it. We haven’t got all day. Bring it in here – and for Christ’s sake don’t touch the toggle switch.”
We emerged back in the Grand Entrance. Donna dropped the handles of my wheelchair and strode over to the front desk, where, I was unsurprised to see, one of the staff – a frail, mousy little girl – yielded her terminus to her with barely a murmur.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!”
Donna’s voice, massively amplified, resounded all round Prince Albert’s magisterial space. Nervous souls jumped. I saw her fiddle with the base of the speaker unit, and her next words came out at a more restrained tone, if one which was still infinitely authoritative.
“This area is now closing. Repeat, this area is now closing. Ladies and gentlemen, kindly make your way via all available exits to look at something educational, historic and informative in one of the numerous gallery thingies we seem to have occupying the space between the shop and the cafe. This area is now closing. Repeat, this area is now closing. Ladies and gentlemen, kindly make your way via all available exits –”
It wasn’t too difficult to drive the wheelchair over to her position. I arrived at approximately the same time as a posse of expostulating Museum officials. She whipped out a small hinged vinyl wallet from inside her jacket and flashed it round the assembled company.
“Donna Noble. Health and Safety, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.”
A steely-haired Museum official flicked a contemptuous glance in my direction. “If so, shouldn’t you be getting her out of here? Miss.”
Donna flicked the barest glance in my direction. “Professor Rubenstein is with me.”
“At her age?”
She favoured the unfortunate man with a withering glance. “This is the Victoria and Albert, not the Tate bleedin’ Modern. You think Professor Rubenstein’s too old to be in here, I think you’ve got a bit of a problem with your raison d’être. But not as big as the problem you’ve got with that heap of glass saveloys up there. Trust me.”
She jerked her head up at the glass-tentacled apparition above her. All the museum staff followed the direction of her gaze in fascination.
“We can’t have any of the public in here until we’ve had the chance to check it over thoroughly. Official order. We’ve had reports that it’s been moving.”
“Oh, but that’s preposterous!”
She raised a hand to check the gallery director who’d stepped forward to remonstrate. “It’s been up since October, yes? When was the last time anyone checked out the angle of its dangle?”
While he was still spluttering she caught hold of the back of my wheelchair. She spun me round right into the centre of the group.
“Professor Rubenstein, can I ask you to clarify the problem we’re facing here?”
I caught Donna’s glance of desperation, guessed inspiration must be failing her. I cleared my throat, gathered all my energies.
“Dynamic - resonance. Crystalline – structures.”
Someone started to rise at the back of the group, flailing a hand for attention. Donna fixed him with a steely glare. “Well?”
“I think it’s – I think it’s – for fuck’s sake, everyone – run!”
I cast a quick glance up at the ceiling – saw the glass mass start to writhe and spread across the inlaid marble – and then the lights went out, Donna grabbed the back of my wheelchair, pushed me as hard as she could go.
We made it to our cover behind the suit of armour just as Derek emerged from one of the further store-rooms pushing Walcott, the pockets of whose wheelchair were bulging, no doubt with non-restored Scythian gold work and other trifles of a similarly portable nature. Donna glared at them both. Walcott met her with an impassive grimace but Derek, less hardened, rashly opened his mouth.
“Kid, shut it before I shut it for you,” she snapped.
He fell back, alarmed, and I caught the hint of a grin on her glowing features.
“Right,” she said, “if any of us get out of here alive I can guess then what you’ve got in your pocketses. But given we’ve got up there, we’ve got more pressing things on our hands. Here’s what I want you to do about it.”
She bent to Derek’s ear and he paled, then nodded. He set off, pushing Walcott as if he intended to break a speed record. Half a minute later we heard the soaring, sweeping wail as every fire-alarm in the museum went off, and the sounds of pounding feet towards every emergency exit.
In her eyes fire blazed up and Troy fell. Atlanta burned. Vesuvius’ crown exploded; lakes of rippling fire swept down upon Pompeii and Herculaneum. The waves of planes droned in, a swarm of killer bees against the moonlit sky. Beneath them London, Liverpool, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, Rotterdam, Cracow kindled in death and destruction. Clouds plumed over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Across the universe massed battle-fleets swung between the stars, dealing blue-hot death. Planets failed, crashed blazing into young suns. The end of the Universe itself flickered in her eyes.
I caught all that for one fraction of a split second. Then she turned her head and passed through the door.
A wave of weakness swept over me and I cursed. I was old, yes, but no excuses for that: I had glimpsed the Vortex in her eyes, but this woman carried it within her. The flames writhed visibly beneath that pale, translucent skin. Already her retreating back seemed almost incandescent.
I gripped, hard, on the precious box: the pain of its sharp edges cutting into my palm, thrusting back the gathering dark around my vision. Far away, but getting closer every second came the pounding noise of footsteps.
I knew, even before the tousle-haired, pin-striped suited man with the extraordinary footwear rounded the corner, who this would be. The Doctor. Before he could speak I raised the dead man’s switch into the space between us; letting him see it properly. He knew what it was, all right. He skidded to a stop. I could almost have laughed, could I spare the breath.
“Have you any idea what you’re letting her do?”
If I only could utter a word at a time it had to be the right word.
“Gl – glory.”
“What?” So: he had heard me. Further, I knew this was someone who did not immediately write people off for inarticulacy. That inspired me to further efforts.
“Choice. Glory. Not Days.”
His face twisted. He muttered something. The language was Ancient Greek. Back in the 1950s I’d spent eight years I’d never have back married to a Classics don from St John’s (generous with nothing except his favours, and those only to his dimmer female students). I knew the Iliad when I heard it in the original. He pronounced the archaic words oddly; with a thrill of something between awe and terror I realised, most likely, his pronuciation was the authentic one. This one could easily have heard Homer sing his own song himself.
“Her own song, actually,” he said.
The left side of my mouth sagged permanently, so one could hardly say my jaw dropped. Anyway, the idea was not a novel one. Still –
“You. Mind. Read.”
He shrugged. “No. I’d be mind-reading if you didn’t want me to hear you, but you – no, you’re something special, you are. All those things that sharp brain of yours has been wanting to express for years, except that your damaged nervous system just had to get in the way. Oh yes. Four or five years-worth of snappy comebacks, sharp retorts, profound thoughts, all tumbling over each other, fighting to get out. If I were a true telepath I’d have my hands over my ears by now, begging you to stop the screaming. Luckily, it’s only the TARDIS, amplifying your sub-vocalisation. You keep thinking your hardest at me, and I can guarantee I’ll hear you, Doctor Naomi Rubenstein. Just keep right on thinking.”
So; you seemingly young man, in whose dark eyes a millennium’s memories stir, you can imagine what it’s like to lose the power of speech. Try this for size. Can you imagine losing everything that makes you what you are, being reduced to nothing but a husk; a husk housing nothing except an endless, unacknowledged regret?
He recoiled; his voice dropped to a whisper. “I had no choice.”
There is always a choice. If no other, between glory – and length of days.
His lips twisted. “That’s not a choice – I can let her make.”
Let? So, someone died and made you God?
“There is no God.”
I’m glad we find ourselves in agreement on that point. Doctor.
I saw by his face that crack had gone home. I am too old a soldier to allow an enemy time to regroup. Before she went in there - she told me what we are facing.
I could see from his face that he knew, too. If that thing in the entrance hall once began its song, then all the little sparks that have left this place, carried carefully as presents for mothers, fathers, sisters, uncles - carried, to every corner of the world by loving hands – would themselves spark into life and start to spread. Before long there would be no room for anything else, anywhere on the surface of the Earth.
“And did she tell you anything else?”
Very, very slowly I managed the faintest trace of a nod. A tear squeezed itself out from the corner of my eye, trailing down my withered cheek.
She said – you would insist on stopping it. That no-one’s body could stand the strain of being in the room with it once it started singing – ‘Even if he had fifty hearts, not just two’. And that you couldn’t be spared; ‘I’ve seen what happens when he rushes off and does something needlessly self-sacrificing,’ she said. ‘I’m not letting it happen again. I’m expendable. He’s not.’
His voice dropped to a whisper. “Never expendable. Not a single one of them.”
I tried to infuse my thought with the dry sarcasm I had once saved up for vivas and Faculty meetings. Not exactly officer material, are you, Doctor? You can never take on all their danger. Just make sure their deaths count. And write the death letters before you sleep that night.
“Jack tried to tell me that once, too.” What he might have gone on to say I shall never know. The air was cut in two by a high, impossibly pure sequence of chords, rising on to an unbearable pitch. Even through the solid Victorian woodwork I could feel it shuddering through every cell of my body. I once heard a soprano hit a top ‘C’ that shattered a wine-glass. Now it was time for glass to have its revenge over flesh. Very little more of this and I, too, would break into shards where I sat.
In a storm of feedback from the public address Donna’s voice cut across the unearthly music.
“You! Alien glass worm thing! I warned you! I told you not to start singing. Most lethal karaoke singer in Chiswick, me. So if you want to make it a contest – I’m up for it.”
I thought the alien song faltered, just for half a breath. In that hesitation Donna struck. I don’t think she made the faintest attempt to hit the note. This was commando-karaoke, and power, speed and surprise trumped finesse.
“First I was afraid
I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never live
without you by my side.”
Besides me the Doctor gulped back something which might have been a laugh or a sob.
“That’s my Donna.”
The affronted alien – I could tell its mood, even though we had nothing, not even a basic molecular structure, in common – screamed its defiance in a shattering crescendo of unearthly notes. Donna, clearly, was having nothing of it. The public address system cranked up to its fullest volume, the distortion that produced evidently part of Donna’s master-plan. I don’t think the alien had a chance. She gave it the full lyrics, plus reprise. There came a final, ear-splitting, infinitely prolonged note and then a sound like hail, on and on.
The Doctor caught the handles of my wheelchair and ran, pushing me before him like a battering ram. I don’t know what he did to the door to the Entrance Hall, which I knew Donna had locked after her, but it sprang open at our approach.
As I had always expected, we were too late on the scene to make any difference.
The wheel-chair scrunched over glittering green dust. Dust carpeted the Entrance Hall; lay thick on every horizontal surface, bejeweled the capitals of the Corinthian columns. Donna lay sprawled on the alien, emerald sand-dunes piled up beneath where the sculpture had hung, long limbs graceful even in death, her hair a blazing red halo about her pale face; a composition Rossetti would have given his right arm to paint and still got wrong.
For no Pre-Raphaelite could ever see beyond the end of his own ego when it came to women. He would have painted her as Medea, thrown from her serpent-drawn chariot, face drawn in hate and frenzy, or as Sappho, flinging herself from her Ionian rock in love-stuck despair.
He would never have painted her as she lay in the Entrance Hall of the Victoria and Albert Museum, her face so calm it hurt to look at her, the two halves of her sundered soul at last united in death.
“So, well, this is it, then.”
I glanced covertly at the display on the same machine, still wary of interference, but the Doctor intercepted my glance, gave me a firm, reassuring nod.
22 December 1942, somewhere in the Languedoc.
There was a railway bridge - we’d sent parties against it half a dozen times, always in vain. I’d started to take it personally, but it was still standing when our line was compromised – one of the men tortured with Harkness had broken before he died – and they’d had to get me out. I’d planned to go back one day and see if it, too, had survived the War, but something had kept me away.
Now I was back.
The door of the TARDIS opened, the ramp was let down, I smelt the fresh smell of the night, spiked with herbs. I felt the soft weight of the charges we had taken from Donna firm and reassuring beneath my sweater; a last reassuring caress of her own body’s warmth giving me companionship at the last.
I could sense the Doctor behind me, turning his head away, raising his forearm to shield his eyes as I pushed the wheelchair on, down the ramp, back into Occupied France.
My twisted, drooping mouth was as useless for grinning as for speech. My mind, though, could flash him a full-blown urchin smile, a water-melon expression, split in an ecstasy of joy and freedom.
Death, although you’re a God, you know you must come when I call. And this way, and this way, I call you.
As the TARDIS vanished behind me I opened my hand, let the dead-man’s switch fall. The night bloomed into flame.
Glory. And length of days.