Chapter 1 - Two Singles to Provence by A.J. Hall
The TGV shot out of the tunnel into brilliant sunshine. She put down The Avignon Quintet with relief and turned towards the window. Bloody Nerys, and her daft theory that you got chatted up by a better class of bloke if you looked to be reading something intellectual. Case in point, the floppy-haired skinny man who’d got on at Lyons hadn’t said a word to her in all that time. To add insult to injury, he was reading the latest Jilly Cooper.
As if on cue, he put his own book down on the table and glanced across at her. “Want to swap, Donna Noble?”
“Here, how did you -?”
He cocked his head up at the luggage rack. “Label on your bag.”
“Oh.” Fears she was trapped in a foreign railway carriage with a crazy stalker receded. “What about you, then? What’s your name?”
“Me? Oh, it’s Smith. John Smith.”
Despite her best efforts, she failed to repress her disbelieving snigger. “You’re having me on. No-one is actually called John Smith. It’s like painting a sign on your forehead, saying ‘Look at me, I’m travelling under an alias. And I’m a bit short-changed in the imagination department’.”
“No, honest, it really is John Smith. Well, it is now. Got the deed poll and the passport and everything. Seemed simplest to change it permanently; no-one could say the old one. Thought my ex-girlfriend might be the one to manage it but - “
He let the sentence trail off and turned to stare out of the window himself. In the filing system of Donna’s mind she opened a drawer marked, “Heterosexual, Single, Moping” and created a new folder.
“Funny, never have pegged you as Polish,” she observed. As that slid off him without response she changed tack, nodding towards his book.
“That the one set in the Premiership Rugby club, isn’t it? Where the prop forward is secretly gay and has a massive crush on the physio, but daren’t do anything about it because his wife’s the daughter of the club’s biggest sponsor and if her father yanks the dough the club will collapse? And she’s actually boffing the French international with the todger that’s the envy of the entire Six Nations?”
He grinned at her; amazing what a change that made to his face. “Oy, Donna Noble! Spoilers! I’m only on page eighty-one. How’d you like it if I gave away the ending of yours?”
“To be honest, Alias Boy? Wouldn’t give a stuff. I’m only on page ten, and I can already tell it’s going to be one of those books where they can’t make up their minds whether they exist or whether they’re figments of each other’s imaginations. Am I right, or am I right?”
“Pretty much spot on.” He hesitated. “At one point someone gets sent a sofa by a character in a novel he’s writing.”
Donna swept the book off the table into her travelling bag. “Right, that does it. This one’s going straight to Oxfam when I get home. Can’t stand all this parallel worlds stuff people keep banging on about these days, can you? Last night, f’rinstance. President Jones on the News, pushing for a ‘Non-Proliferation Treaty on Parallel Worlds Research’ – the way she was talking, you’d think we were all panting to slip into some alternative present like where I might have fetched up if, say, I’d taken up Charlie Frobisher’s offer at the Christmas Party that time, just so we can go and say, ‘Hi, I might have been your mother’ to a bunch of strange kids. You’d just go mad if you thought too long about that sort of thing, wouldn’t you? Hey, are you all right?”
The question, of course, had only one answer; John Smith was huddled against the carriage window, hunched around himself as if in almost unbearable pain. Donna reached out her hand to touch his forehead; clammy and cold.
“Should I get you a doctor?” Her mind skittered to the phrase-book in her bag. *Est-ce que un medicin dans le train*? No, waste of time; they should be in Aix in ten minutes. Ou se trouve l’hopital? That ought to be understandable to the densest railway official. Better hope Alias Boy been efficient and filled in his health forms – though if he was anything like any other bloke she’d ever met, he probably used to rely on his ex-girlfriend doing all that sort of thing and thought travel insurance was something that happened to other people.
He shook his head. “No point. I know what’s wrong with me. I’m dying.”
Her hand went to her lips. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry. Did they tell you – um – “
“How long have I got, you mean?” His face twisted in an expression which seemed hauntingly familiar; weird, since she’d swear blind she’d never seen him before in her life. “Fifty years, give or take, I s’pose. Barring accidents.”
The relief rushing through her converted, effortlessly, into sheer rage. “You tosser! You absolute blind, selfish tosser. Here’s me thinking you’d just been given six months to live, like Mrs Carpenter at the end of our street, and it turns out you’re just using a high-brow metaphor to express your basic man-pain at the existential hopelessness of life.”
“You sure you only got to page ten?” A little colour returned to his face. “Sorry to scare you, Donna. I didn’t think. It’s just – well, that was the last straw. Between me and Rose. One morning I was combing my hair in the bathroom and I spotted a couple of grey hairs. And I was just staring at them – oh, you never actually think it’s going to happen, even when you know it must – and at that moment she came in behind me – and I could see her face in the mirror as she saw what I was looking at. And her face changed. It was then I knew that I couldn’t be the man she wanted, ever.”
“Blimey, that must limit her options a bit in the Lonely Hearts ads. ‘Must have: GSOH, perpetual youth.’” Donna put her head on one side. “Mind you, given they never tell the truth about the GSOH, the other one oughtn’t to limit the replies too much either. I don’t suppose, Mr Existential Angst, you bothered to ask – Rose, did you say? - whether it was actually you getting older she minded, or her having to cope with you thinking two grey hairs was the end of civilisation as you knew it? Men!”
His mobile expression changed again. “Donna Noble, you are brilliant! Can I buy you lunch?” He scrambled to his feet, reaching to hand her down her bag as he spoke.
The train was slowing; white houses with red-tiled roofs were appearing; fields of sunflowers and terraced vines giving way to tumbled gardens, bright with succulents. Aix, presumably. And, by the sound of it, this was the end of the line for Alias Boy as well as for her.
She thought about it for a whole two seconds. “Right – you’re on. But I’m warning you, if you’re planning to bend my ear about your tragic love-life, it’s going to cost you a lobster.”
“If a lobster’s what you want, Donna Noble, it will be my pleasure to provide one. Allons y!”
“So, let me get this straight.” She stared at Alias Boy across the rim of her wine-glass, forcing her eyes to focus. Despite her best efforts, a faint second image hovered around him, as if he had developed a ghostly twin. Donna wondered, briefly, if ordering that third bottle of Chablis had been a mistake. Sod it; what were holidays for, anyway?
Mid afternoon sun beat down; the terrace awning granted them a few precious square feet of shade, an oasis beneath that pitiless golden glare. Cicadas chirped nearby.
She put down her glass and gestured, emphatically and not too steadily, with the claw-crackers. Alias Boy shot back two feet in his chair, almost off the edge of the restaurant terrace and down into the parched, prickly, herb-scented tumble of hillside which fell away to the main cluster of the town below
She cackled – blame the Chablis – and added, “You’re telling me that your Rose was really in love with this other bloke who looked a bit like you, yeah?”
“Well, it was a lot more than a bit -“
“And he didn’t fancy her?”
“Well, it was much more complicated than -“
“And he had to go off travelling somewhere and anyway, for whatever reason, he had his life planned, and that life was going to be Rose-free, no exceptions, no chance, zilch, zip, nada?”
“Well, it wasn’t precisely that he didn’t want -“
“And he told her so – in front of you - in no uncertain terms?”
“Well, to be honest, I think he was trying to soften it all he could -“
“And then he explicitly set the two of you up with each other? And you went along with it? Knowing that she was really in love with the other guy, and that you were being offered as the fat-free, decaffeinated, low-cal substitute?”
“Well, you can’t blame me for hoping -“
“Are you a man or a bleeding mouse, Alias Boy? If none of the three of you realised this whole scenario had ‘Recipe for Disaster’ stamped on it in big, official, Government letters then colour me orange and call me a carrot. Oh, I’m not blaming you; I can see where you were coming from. And I’m not blaming Rose, either – how old did you say she was? Twenty-two? Well, stands to reason she wouldn’t be thinking straight, even if she weren’t in love, which is enough to scramble anyone’s brains. But as for your so-called mate who set the whole thing up? Well, if I’d got him in front of me I’d give him a piece of my mind, I can tell you.”
Alias Boy looked at her, riveted, almost on fire. “Oh,” he breathed, “I have absolutely no doubt about that, Donna Noble.”
“Well, then, I think you – oh God - awk-!”
The back legs of her chair must have been moving ever closer to the edge of the terrace. With her last emphatic gesture they went back half an inch too far. Her chair tipped backwards, paused for an endless fraction of a second, and then she was rolling down the hillside, thorns tearing at her, rough stones grazing her flesh, nothing to cling onto, even the soil little more than sand, nothing there of stability, nothing to stay her accelerating progress to bloody wreck in the valley below -
Alias Boy screamed her name as if in challenge to the laws of gravity. She took it down with her into the ruinous dark.
“Ssh! It’s only Dettol. Great stuff, Dettol. “
Her eyes didn’t want to open; she defied them and won. She was back in her hotel bedroom, the room she had seen for a bare ten minutes earlier that day, when she had dumped her luggage, splashed tepid water over face, neck and arms, dropped her crumpled travelling dress to the floor and changed into her new white drawstring linen pyjamas, to go out to lunch. Alias Boy was leaning over her where she lay on the bed, his eyes wide and worried, a pad of soaked cotton-wool in his hand.
“How – did you get me here?”
“Ack?” Her voice came out wordless, strangled with disbelief. He cocked his head on one side.
She gained strength from scepticism.
“Carried me? All the way down from the restaurant? Don’t give me that bull. Look, I’m not one of your fragile butterfly girls. You’d have given yourself a hernia.”
“Well – I had help. Used a portable anti-grav device I’d nicked from the office, to be honest. Thought it might come in handy with the holiday luggage and, luckily, I still had it in my pocket. But you – you could have killed yourself. How could you expect me to cope with that?”
For one long, tense moment his eyes blazed down, bright even in the dimness of the shuttered room, and she glared back. Then, somehow, something shifted in her head, overriding the discipline of years; caution; whispered words; her mother’s scornful comments and dismissive gestures. She shuffled sideways in the bed.
“Get in, Alias Boy.”
“I said; get in. And don’t get me wrong, either. I may have drunk a bottle of Chablis this afternoon -“
“Two, more like. Best part of, anyway.”
“You were the one showing off your Frog to the waiter. Your problem if you didn’t know the difference between “deux” and “trois”. Anyway. No funny business. Hanky panky is right out. This is not any sort of invitation to slap and tickle of any description whatsoever. Got me? But, by God, I’ve never seen a man more in need of an honest-to-goodness cuddle in my life. Get in, for Christ’s sake, Alias Boy, or get out. And that’s my final offer.”
After a moment of boggled silence, he sat down on the edge of the double bed, swung up his legs and, his entire body tensed in a cacophony of resistance, rolled resentfully under the duvet. Her arms reached round his thin shoulders, pulled him tight against her breasts (decently encased, thank the stars, in a sensible white M&S bra). Her hand reached up, smoothing down his ruffled dark hair, stroking, soothing. They lay like that for some time; a stretched period of forced calm, followed by – as she had foreseen - agony; vocal and unshielded.
“Oh, God, Donna, I love her, I love her so much, and she just looks past me every time, looking for him. And when I seem most like him, that’s when she hates me the worst. And what am I going to do?”
She had her answer ready. “Survive. How do you think the rest of us have to manage? Though I admit, given the choice I’d rather suffer an abscessed root canal than unrequited love. And, trust me, I’ve got plenty of data on both counts.”
He whimpered; she drew him tighter. In the back of her mind she heard Nerys, saying, “So you were in the South of France with this dishy bloke who’d just bought you a no expense spared lunch, you got into bed with him, and you’re telling me nothing happened?” But Nerys was six hundred miles away, and Alias Boy was here. Something else was present too, something unknown, closer than kinship, closer than sex. She reached out to it and clung on with both hands.
“You’re not alone, love. Not while I’m here. And I’m not going anywhere. Not this time. Trust me.”
And for the life of her she could not have said which of them had spoken, as they lay entwined in each other’s arms, there in the soft dark of the shuttered room.
“You know, I’m going to miss this place, back in Chiswick.” Donna leaned on the sun-warmed stone of the parapet. Little flowers had rooted themselves in the mortar, bright blue sparks against the grey.
“Only the place?” His teeth showed very white in his tanned face as he laughed She wondered, briefly, what was wrong with her, that after two weeks in his company she couldn’t imagine anyone she’d sooner spend all her days with, and yet she found him about as fanciable as her kid brother. If she’d ever had a kid brother.
“You fishing, Alias Boy? Anyway, I thought you were booked onto the 10am to Paris tomorrow, same as me.”
“Donna Noble! Have you been snooping?”
She shrugged. “Just filing. Way you chuck your things around, if someone didn’t look after you, you’d be in a right mess. And that reminds me – next time you come abroad, you need to sort yourself out with proper health cover. It’s only a couple of forms from the Post Office; it’s not rocket science.”
There was something about him today, she realised, which didn’t add up. He was bouncy and nervous at the same time, like the half-spaniel pup she and Grandad had rescued from those young thugs up by the allotments. She raised her eyebrows and assumed her most formidable, “No-one’s going to put anything past me” expression.
He cocked his eye up at the sky which was, as it had been for most of the last fortnight, a clear, cloudless blue. “I think that counts as over the yardarm, doesn’t it? Can I buy you a drink? Allons-y!”
They were sitting under the shade of the red umbrellas outside their newly-discovered favourite bar of all time and space, the waiter hovering to take their order, when she spoke again.
“Yes, you can, Alias Boy, and you can tell them – given you’re the language guru - I want a Cotes de Luberon, red, and if they were thinking of serving us the usual rat’s piss that, frankly, in their place I’d serve British tourists if I were running a bar round here, given the attitude most of those tossers have, I’d be greatly obliged if they could think better of it. It’s my last day here and I’d rather think, “Ah, le vin de la pays!” when remembering this bar than, “Ah, le paint-stripper de la Kingfisher de Aix-en-Provence!”
“Does it have to be your last day here?”
She sat back in her chair and stared at him. The waiter took the order and, with amazing speed, brought out the bottle and two glasses on a tray. She sipped hers – brilliant, as Alias Boy would say; his Frog must be improving, or her glare at the waiter had found its mark, or, of course, the waiter possessed both good English and GSOH – and recovered her voice.
“Well; I don’t have a private income, I don’t speak the language, my train ticket has an expiry date on it and I’m on a promise of a temp. job at the Radiology Dept of Westminster Hospital, starting Tuesday, so I reckon that’s a good enough definition of ‘have to’ to be going on with, don’t you?”
He took a big gulp of his own wine, holding his glass in front of his face like someone who had something to conceal.
“Well – yeah – but Harriet phoned me last night -“
“I thought your ex was called Rose – how many women do you have on the go at any one time, Alias Boy?”
“She’s not my – oh, if you must, President Harriet Jones phoned me last night – don’t hold your mouth open like that, what if a bee flew in?”
She paused, momentarily, struck by an inconsequential thought. “Funny, isn’t it, how there aren’t nearly as many bees around as there used to be when we were kids - “
“That’s climate change for you. Pollution. Vibration. Ozone. Big Brother. Whatever. Anyway, Donna, give me a chance to get a word in edgeways, for once. I didn’t tell you, but I’ve been on indefinite leave from the office -“
“Rose your boss, was she? Makes a change. All the office romances I can recall, it was always the woman who got the shove.”
She held up her hands in token of surrender. “OK, I’ll shut it. Spit. What did President Harriet Jones want? To make you her Parallel Worlds Research Tsar, or something?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. There’s a research institute just over the hill from here, and she’s worried about what it’s up to and the French Government aren’t prepared even to admit it exists.”
Heedless of suicidal bees, she gaped; he rushed hurriedly on. “And she’s deadly serious about the risks entailed, and I know – God, Donna, do I ever know – that’s she’s right. And my organisation – the one I worked in, with Rose – well, it’s quite hard to get Head Office to see past the end of its own nose. They always think It worked once, it’ll work again rather than applying the law of diminishing returns. Rose and I used to go absolutely spare, yelling at them – and if they wouldn’t listen to us - who else would they ever listen to?”
She beckoned the waiter, and – gesturing at the menu - ordered bread, olives and a plate of mixed charcuterieto be going on with. Alias Boy, six hundred miles away in spirit, never noticed a thing.
“That’s when Rose said one of us had to do something, and that I was the one stupid enough to do it, and carry on doing it till someone listened.”
“I like her already. One of these days, you’ll have to introduce us. And?”
He looked at her, his face open and guileless.
“President Jones listened. And that’s why I can do what I’m planning, and not ask permission from anyone. Oh, I said, ‘Head Office’ but Torchwood isn’t a company. It was founded as a direct Crown body, by Queen Victoria, so after the Abolition Crisis, when the First President seized power – well, you must know enough about the Presidential Code to work out who controls Torchwood’s funds now, whatever London office may like to think.”
“The President in person?No-one overseeing?” She had got an “A” in civics at school, mainly because it was one of those nice tidy subjects, with a clear answer and a nice clear place to put it. She felt a sneaky glow of satisfaction at Alias Boy’s impressed expression.
“Dead on, Donna Noble. If President Jones chooses to create a branch of Torchwood in Antarctica, answerable to no-one but her, no-one can stop her. Unless the penguins ganged up, of course. Can you imagine a penguin coup? Better than a pigeon coup, I suppose. Or counter-coup. Or would that be a pigeon coo-coup co-coup, d’you think?”
“I think you need your head seeing to. You’re trying to tell me that you work for Torchwood, and the President has just given you carte blanche to open a branch in the South of France: outside the Government, under the radar of the French, behind the backs of your office superiors -“
”- above this bar, just up those stairs and through the doorway to the left, yes. I put down the deposit yesterday, while you were having a siesta. And I’m offering you a job in it. Got that? Or do you want me to strip myself naked and crawl across the cobbles, begging?”
“Well, since you’re offering -“
She saw his horror-struck face, paused for just one iota and a half-smidge longer than strictly necessary, and then relented. “I’ll have the steak frites, then.”
It was only when they had reached the crème caramel stage that he plucked up courage enough to ask, “Well? Aren’t you going to give me an answer?”
“Well, I’m thinking about it. But Torchwood. You never told me you were Torchwood. That – that’s like fighting aliens, isn’t it?”
His brow furrowed. “Well - sometimes. But, done properly, there’s lots of xeno-diplomacy, too. For example, there’s at least one advanced alien civilisation with ties to Earth, who communicate entirely through cookery. Subtle variations of spices can mean the difference between a peace treaty and a declaration of war without quarter.”
“Golly. Bet the French love them.”
“Well by and large. There’ve been some near misses. Imagine trying to convince six foot seven of affronted lizard that it was just fusion cuisine, not an unforgiveable slight on its mothers. Anyway, come and see the offices. Even if you don’t take the job, I’d like your opinion. Come on, now.”
The rooms were cool, the thick whitewashed stone of the walls exuding their own calm. She wandered through; back and forth, eying them up, measuring. He leaned against the door-post, with a studied air of nonchalance.
She turned towards him. Frowned. Saw his face twist in response, his brows draw down in despair. And then, with slow deliberation, she said, “We’re going to need a lot more shelves, Alias Boy. I’m not going out to fight aliens with inadequate filing. Especially not since the way you tell it, we’ll have to set aside plenty of space just for the alien recipes.”
He paused for one fraction of a split second. And then he let out a great whoop of triumph.
“Donna Noble! We are going to be magnificent!”