R, gen. The Doctor delivers a gift.
Under the bed there is a box. Inside the box there is another box. Inside that box is another box, and a small note, saying “piss off, Jack.” Inside that box is yet another box and another note with “and you, Doctor.”
The box inside that one stays there for a while, and then it somehow ends up in east London, left one night outside the door of a council flat, and on a golden autumn morning, Jackie Tyler sits down at her kitchen table and opens it. She finds treasures inside, small wonders from every corner of the universe, and more precious than even those, loose leaves of paper covered in handwriting, yellowing at the edges and all signed love, Rose.
The first thing she takes out, though, is a tin of beans.
Dear Mum, Rose wrote.
The Doctor and me just got back from America. It was fun, but not what I’d have expected. Not that we did the touristy stuff, anyway. It’s hard to explain.
I don’t know if I ever told you, but Shireen tried to make me go shoplifting with her once. She picked up a lipstick off the counter at Boots and tried to make me stick it in my pocket. I didn’t, though, ‘cause I knew you’d hit the roof. Anyway, I’m not a real thief...
“Pass us the celery,” said the Doctor, leaning casually against the doorframe.
Rose picked up the tin and squinted at it. The only light came from the half-obscured moon and the blue glow of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. “It’s not celery,” she said. “Since when do you get tinned celery, anyway?”
“All right, the tinned runner beans, the tinned sauerkraut, whatever it is!”
She handed it to him, carefully; she was painfully aware just one false step would send her flying down to the ground below. “There.”
He lifted it up just as the moon came out from behind the clouds, and in one smooth motion, threw it out onto the tracks. It skittered down the embankment and was lost from sight.
“What the hell did you do that for?” said Rose, raising her voice above the roar of the train.
The Doctor didn’t answer. He was busy rummaging through the rest of the boxes, pulling out tin after tin like the one Rose found, along with bottles, packages, even a whole, wrapped side of bacon. He grinned, and the moonlight shining into his eyes made him look very alien. “Five points if you can hit a tree,” he said, and handed her another tin.
Rose gave him a withering look, but she threw it. The train whistled as the tin reached the apex of its flight, so they didn’t hear if it clunked into the tree or not, but the general consensus was that Rose should get the points.
The Doctor threw the bacon next. It missed the vegetation but hit bare earth with a satisfying squelch. “Three points,” Rose decided.
“Worth more than that!” He grinned again.
“All right, three and a half.”
Rose threw another can of beans and suddenly, as the can collided solidly with one of the embankment fence-posts, began to enjoy herself. “I didn’t even know they had tins of food in nineteen-whatever-you-said-it-was.”
“Nineteen thirty-one.” The Doctor threw a package in a large arc towards the trees. Something exploded in a rush of white, visible even in moonlight, and he looked sheepish. “I think that was flour.”
They dealt carefully with the bottles, throwing them underhand so they rolled and didn’t break. Rose misjudged and smashed one on the floor by her feet, and she was half afraid someone would come running at the sound, but the Doctor shook his head. “Not a soul on these old trains except the driver, and maybe a few guards. We’re fine.”
Expertly, he lobbed the last few bottles and picked up the final item in the box. It was a pineapple. “Rose, the honour is yours.”
Rose tossed it out with a grin of her own. “Now what?”
“Now we jump.”
Rose laughed, and then stopped abruptly. “You’re not serious.”
“I’m perfectly serious. This train will keep going till Georgia.”
“Yeah, but jumping from a moving freight train... we’ll get killed!”
“No, we won’t.” He sounded so certain that Rose found herself looking analytically at the drop. “You go first, go on.”
“If I die, it’s all going to be your fault,” she warned him. “You’ll have to go and tell my mum, and I hope she slaps you harder this time!”
She gave him a final glare, tried not to look down, and jumped. At once the noise of the train fell away beneath her and far above her head, she saw stars. A second later the ground was rushing towards her and instinctively she got ready for impact. Her fall was broken by soft, dying leaves and she rolled and rolled and like the bottles, didn’t break. Moments afterwards she felt the heavy thud and heard the rustling that meant the Doctor had joined her. He came to a gentle stop beside her and for a few seconds, the only sound above the background wildlife was two sets of breathing gradually becoming slower.
The Doctor sat up. “That was fun, wasn’t it?”
Rose ignored him, pulling herself to her feet and feeling like an old woman. “Urgh. Everything hurts.”
“Come on!” He grabbed her hand. “We ought to get back to the TARDIS.”
“Where is it?”
“Oh,” – he waved an airy hand in the same direction as the tracks – “about two miles that way.”
Rose swore, very softly, and tramped along after him. He didn’t speak as they fended their way through the vegetation, and she resigned herself to a long walk. After five minutes of silence, she paused. “I heard something.”
“So did I. Shush a minute.” The Doctor fumbled in his pocket, probably looking for his screwdriver, but before he could find it, Rose saw a light.
There was somebody by the tracks. Slowly, the Doctor edged forwards, motioning for Rose to stay behind him. After a minute, they were close enough to see a figure holding an oil lantern, and as the hand holding the light moved upwards, Rose saw a young, pretty black woman wearing a ragged threadbare dress.
A second passed before they heard the woman’s voice, raised above the sounds of crickets chirping. “Hey! Over here!”
There was a long pause, and then the sounds of other voices in the distance but getting closer.
Suddenly, the Doctor laughed. Wondering what could be funny, Rose pushed past him to get a closer look, and saw it – the woman was holding a tin. Others were joining her now, men and women in bare feet and old, falling-apart clothes, often desperately thin, but laughing and whooping with delight as more treasures, more tins and bottles and packages, were discovered on the tracks and in the undergrowth. There were several lanterns now, making patterns of light over the ground, and the Doctor led Rose away.
“Lots of people getting a good meal in them tonight,” he said after a while, once the lights had begun to grow fainter behind them.
“How come they were...?” Rose began, and then stopped. She didn’t know how to put it.
“There was a crash,” the Doctor said quietly. “The bottom fell out of the stock market overnight. Millions of people were left with nothing. We’ve just fed a Hooverville.”
“It’s a shanty town, made of cardboard boxes, you know?”
“But they have vacuum cleaners?” she said, half-mocking.
“The President of the United States, Herbert Hoover. Sits on his arse while people starve, and that’s why he gets such lovely compliments paid to him. Hurry up, will you?”
She scurried along to keep up. “Sorry! Think I hurt my ankle when I fell.” Her hand grabbed his again, and she smiled suddenly. “Steal from the rich to give to the poor. We’re like Robin Hood.”
He laughed. “Yeah, if you like.”
The sounds of people looking for food had faded behind them. Something glimmered comfortingly blue in front. “Doctor,” she said after a while.
“You were right.”
“I’m always right.”
“Shut up.” She elbowed him, then gripped his hand tighter. “This was fun.”
The lantern lights, drifting over the tracks, had become too faint to see. They were going home.
The next object looks like a rock. Jackie turns it over to find a leaf-pattern etched on it, a delicate tracery of lines that catch the light in their translucency. She digs in further, finds a bag of jellybabies, a bottle of pink hair dye, a strange, ornate alien headdress and one of those fabric lizards, made of silk and filled with sand so it sits heavily in her hand.
Dear Mum, Rose wrote.
I got captured and there were aliens, this time. But the Doctor got me out. He usually does. Eventually. I mean, he’s the Doctor, that’s what he does.
I guess I am still with Mickey, technically. I mean we never broke it off or anything like that. I know I should sort it, but I found the condoms you put in my bag and I’m not, I mean the Doctor’s not, he’s not my boyfriend, he’s different.
Anyway, I’d never cheat...
Something dripped. It was probably just rainwater, but Rose ducked out of the way anyway and drew her knees up to her chin, leaning against the wall. It was damp, too, but she couldn’t be bothered moving again. She closed her eyes and let a long sigh escape, and when her eyes opened again, there was a lizard on the opposite wall. She didn’t scream. Some of her mates at school would have screamed, and to be honest she might have done, too, if it meant some pretty boy with a Superman complex came running along to save her, but she was alone.
So she stared. The lizard, for all she could see of its small, jewel-like eyes, stared back.
“Hi,” said Rose, expecting it to dart swiftly upwards, but it remained where it was, unblinking. “Are you going to stick around?”
It didn’t move.
“Great, ‘cause everyone else disappears.” She paused and sniffed. The damp was probably giving her a cold. “Like, for example, the sodding Doctor, whose fault this is. This is his fault. I mean it.” She sighed. “And now he’s pissed off somewhere, god knows where, while I sit here and get pneumonia.”
The lizard still hadn’t moved, and she warmed to the topic. “I went through Mickey’s room once. Mickey, my sort-of ex-boyfriend, you know? I went round his flat tidying up, and I found a bunch of porn under his bed.” She frowned. “He said it was educational, yeah, yeah, whatever. All these women with stupidly big boobs and carrying bows and arrows, like that makes it educational. Amazons in the rainforest, he said, like in the National Geographic. I said I’d never done that in geography at school, and if he thought he was going to keep porn in his flat while I was there he had another think coming.”
She laughed a little, and the lizard flicked its tail. Another drop of water descended from the ceiling and she sighed again, shivering. “So, yeah, we had a huge row and then he threw them out.” A pause. “Well, I hope he did.
“Anyway, the Doctor said they were a myth, they didn’t actually exist… only now his stupid TARDIS has broken down again, and we’re here, and turns out they’re real after all. Talking of which...” – she levelled a glare at the somnolent reptile – “what is it with blokes and that stuff, anyway? He says we came here by accident, but, well.
“Anyway. Turns out they’re real. Not Amazons, exactly, but aliens that are just like them. The Doctor said it was parallel mythological evolution but I think he’s making that up. And we were just trying to see where we are, just a brief wander through the landscape, or anyway that’s what he said, and there’s an ambush and then we’re captured. Just like that. Actually, I’m captured, and the Doctor whacks one of them over the head and makes off for the trees yelling like a banshee.”
More water trickled down the wall, and she began to wonder if the lizard was dead. She stared it for a second, saw its tongue flick out towards a passing fly, and went hesitantly on. “He said he’d never leave me behind. And I believed him. Believe him.
“Where was I? Yeah, I got captured, and they bunged me in here with half a dozen aliens-that-look-like-Amazons standing guard outside, and it’s all the Doctor’s fault. If a boy lizard in a leather jacket and a blue box ever comes up to you and says, d’you wanna come with me, think about it long and hard before you do, okay?”
The lizard moved abruptly, disappearing up the wall. Rose watched it go, half-remembering stories of prisoners kept in solitary confinement for decades and making friends with mice or rats. She traced the floor at the base of the wall with a hesitant finger, searching for mouse holes, unsure as to whether she actually wanted to find one or whether it might be better just to wait for the lizard to come back.
When she looked up there was a ghost in her cell. She didn’t scream – she was beyond screaming now – but let out a small, strangled shriek.
It was like a medieval monk, or someone in a Grim Reaper Hallowe’en costume, and Rose couldn’t see the face below the cowl. Gradually, she became aware the apparition was far too solid-looking to be a spirit, and besides, only one person moved like that, simultaneously decisive and ungainly. She felt herself beginning to smile. “Doctor?”
“Rose,” he said, in such low tones she could barely hear, “listen.”
“What?” she asked, realising suddenly that he was avoiding her gaze. She tried again to catch his eye and he immediately seemed to look at the ceiling.
“Promise me something. Whatever happens in the next five minutes, you will not scream. All right?”
She sat there for a second, damp and mute, and he took another step forwards. “Rose!” he hissed, looking back at the guard. “All right?”
“Yeah,” she said quickly.
“Good.” He moved swiftly, his footsteps silent underneath the robe, and just when he was so close she was beginning to wonder, he kissed her full on the mouth.
Her eyes shot open, but she didn’t struggle. He drew back, muttered, “Don’t scream,” and somehow or other, he’d picked her up. Holding her effortlessly in both arms, he manoeuvred through the door, and stared balefully back at the guards. Rose was waiting for one of them to come and grab them, but they didn’t move.
The Doctor carried on past them, away from the clearing and towards the trees. It was raining proper rainforest rain, big warm drops falling into her eyes and running down her hair as she shifted back and forth.
“Doctor!” said Rose finally, and rainwater dropped into her mouth. She swallowed it, concentrated and tried again. “What the hell was that about?”
The Doctor didn’t look down. “It’s cultural,” he said. “I’m sort of supposed to be disguised.”
“Disguised as what?”
He ignored her. "Their custom is to take in unmarried girls and, um, begin their training.”
“By putting them in prison?” she asked, with difficulty.
“That was just until they decided what to do with you. Turns out they have another custom where married girls are spared this. So I told them...”
“You told them what, Doctor?”
“Do I have to answer that?” Finally, he looked at her, moving back and forth in his arms in accordance with his shambling gait. “’Cause, really, I don’t want to.”
“It’s okay.” She laughed. “Are they still watching us? Because you can put me down now, if you want.”
He didn’t. He carried her through to the TARDIS, while she rested her head on his chest, listening to his hearts beating in rhythm with the rain.
Below that, Jackie finds a large, fabric flower, a bit tattered and torn at the edges, a ticket stub, a toothbrush, and a sepia-tinted photograph of Rose, the Doctor and another man, grinning up at the camera.
Dear Mum, Rose wrote.
We’ve got someone else going round with us now. His name’s Captain Jack, like the pirate, but he doesn’t think that’s funny. We spent the weekend having a bit of a break on Earth. Would have popped in if we were nearer, but we were fifty years out.
You know, you don’t have to keep reminding me, I remember what happened to Jimmy Stone. I know I got mixed up with his lot and I shouldn’t have, but he’s gone now, got done for possession with intent, and I swear I won’t ever go near that stuff, promise...
The Doctor’s face swam into view. “Rose?”
“Doctor,” she said cheerfully, lying back on the grass. The sky stretched out, horizon to horizon, like a big blue dome above her head. The trees were waving at the edge of it, and there was a girl like a butterfly dancing over the green.
“Rose, are you all right?” He flumped down beside her, and the thud felt like continents moving.
“’m fine,” she said, still cheerful. “D’you know, the sky’s very pretty. I never noticed that before.”
“Ah, leave off, Doctor!” There was the sound of laughter close at hand, and Jack appeared too, all smiles and shining eyes. “She’s stoned off her ass.”
Rose pouted. “I am not.”
“Where’d she get it?” The Doctor sounded resigned. Which was strange, because every time he spoke she saw rainbows.
“Them over there.” Jack pointed across the grass at somebody-or-other. “That peace-and-love chick in the tie-dye.”
“You’ve just described every single person here,” replied the Doctor, still sounding resigned. “I’ve been here before, you know. Would have been a couple of centuries ago, subjectively speaking. Only I can’t seem to remember any of it. Can’t think why.”
“I bet I can,” said Jack. He was uncomfortably close now, Rose noted; she couldn’t think why she didn’t mind, but somehow it made sense, her and Jack and the Doctor all lying on the grass looking at the sky.
“It’s good stuff you get here,” Jack continued. “And I’ve got a lot of experience.”
“Not compared to me, you haven’t.” The Doctor laughed slightly. “I’ve never understood why the human race has this uncontrollable urge to get themselves out of their own skulls.” He tapped the side of Rose’s head. “Is it really that terrible in there?”
“Doctor,” she told him sincerely, “your eyes are like the sky.”
For some reason that made Jack laugh. “She’s off with the fairies all right. No offence, Doctor.”
“Oh, none taken,” said the Doctor sourly. “Look, who did you say gave this to her?”
“I told you, some girl over there.” Jack pointed vaguely. “I tell you something, I’ve been meaning to come here for years. It’s a good time.”
“Oh, yes, if you ignore the future.” The Doctor waved a hand. “Every single person here is going to grow up, have two point four children, get a house in the suburbs, upholster the furniture in chintz and vote Tory, if they don’t die in Vietnam first.”
“You’re entirely too sober, Doctor.” Jack ran a delicate fingertip down the Doctor’s neck and Rose felt oddly violated. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that why we’re here, to ignore the future?”
“Look at Rose,” the Doctor said. “She’s got a nice synaptic dampener on her at the moment, so she’s all opened up to the secrets of the universe, the meaning of life, the answer to everything, a smell of petroleum prevails throughout, blah, blah, and that’s all very well, but I’m a Time Lord and I feel like that all the time. Trust me, it gets old.”
Jack’s eyes weren’t quite as pretty, Rose decided. Especially not now when he was frowning. “Back in a moment,” he said. “Just try and enjoy yourself, Doctor. It won’t kill you.”
He disappeared from view. Rose blinked, but the sky was still the same colour. “Doctor,” she said after a moment, “why am I here? And where’s here?”
The Doctor glanced down at her. “Upstate New York, 1969. How far gone are you?”
“Can lie on the, um, floor. Without holding on,” she said, and threw a tuft of grass at him.
The Doctor was looking pained. “I’m so glad to hear it.”
“The prodigal returneth!” Jack sat back down happily. “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
“That,” said the Doctor witheringly, “is supposed to be an idiom.” He stood up and vanished entirely from Rose’s line of sight. Bereft, she rolled over to watch him walk away and come to a stop next to the hippie butterfly girl with beads in her hair. “’Scuse me,” Rose heard him say, “is there any reason why you keep providing my friends here with enough happy pills to keep them intergalactic for a month?”
“We’re sharing the love, man!”
“Yeah,” agreed another voice, “it’s like, you know, karmic.”
The sound of laughter drifted over, and after a moment so did the Doctor.
“Groovy,” he said, with deep sarcasm, and settled back down where Rose could see him. She could tell he was there, even with her eyes half-closed against the sky.
“You see?” Jack said, somehow managing to smoke lying down. “This is my kinda place.”
“Next time we come anywhere near the sixties, we’re going to Liverpool,” said the Doctor to no-one in particular. Jack offered him the cigarette, which he declined, so Jack passed it onto Rose. Rose breathed in, breathed out, and enjoyed the dizzying sensation of the world moving around her.
“Nah,” said Jack. “Full of mullet-headed Scousers.”
“That’s the point.”
“Yeah, maybe,” conceded Jack, “but you Brits, you do the drugs, but you’re not so good with the free love.”
“I object to orgies at three o’clock in the afternoon, thank you,” said the Doctor firmly.
“It’s not three o’clock in the afternoon, Time Lord.” Jack glanced at his watch. “It’s just gone seven.”
“I know. I’m just stating a fact. Rose, you’re going to hurt your eyes looking at the sun like that.”
“It’s like a star,” said Rose, happily, and yawned. “Like you.”
“Talking of which,” the Doctor continued, ignoring her, “we should be out of here by nightfall. It gets dangerous, this place by night.”
“We’ve faced down alien invasions and rampant nanogenes,” Jack said. “It’s just a concert.”
“It’s not, technically, a concert. It’s an arts fair. And I really do think we ought to leave before you two decide to stay here forever.”
“Doctor,” said Rose earnestly, “if I have to move from here, I will hate you forever.”
He smiled briefly, a small, secret smile, reached over and started to tickle. She squirmed and squealed and laughed until at last he stopped, with Jack grinning away in the background. “D’you hate me now, Rose?”
“No,” she said. “On the whole I think I sort of love you.”
“I’m so glad to hear it,” he said again, only this time he sounded sincere. She wondered if he would pick her up again, but he merely pulled her to her feet, took Jack’s hand as well as hers and the three of them wandered unsteadily back across the grass.
They left Woodstock as night had just about fallen, and the people waved lit candles and lighters in great hypnotic swirls of light as the Doctor led them back to the TARDIS.
“That was fun, too,” said Rose sleepily, and Jack laid her out on the floor as the world faded into radiance behind her.
Rose’s hairbrush, one Jackie had bought herself, that came next. Then a pen, a pink mini iPod, and a piece of glass, a big one with dangerous, jagged edges lined in rusty-red. The slip of paper began Dear Mum, but it was smudged with tears and fingerprints and Jackie could only read one line:
The Doctor will keep me safe.
A scream rent through the air. It was the tortured, cracking scream of a human being on the edge, with no will no voice nothing left but still screaming.
It took Rose too long to realise it was she who was screaming, and that the Doctor was perfectly still. Miniature avalanches of rubble were falling and it was getting darker. Her mouth was full of dust and she stopped screaming with a strangled crack. She breathed in, and it hurt, and she breathed out and it hurt more, and half-whispered, “Doctor?”
There was no reply, and she reached for him but her hands were grasping at empty air.
“Hey!” shouted a voice from somewhere nearby. “There’s one alive!”
Suddenly, her hands were grasped and pulled gently; more rubble slipped away, over her body and away, and she was clear of it, in the grey light of the day. “Doctor,” she muttered.
“Hush, love, soon have you out of there.” Her rescuer looked down at her with a broad, reassuring smile. His voice was the same as the Doctor’s, she realised; it had the same twist in the vowels and went up and down in the same places, but he was still a stranger. “Everything’s going to be fine.” He reached down and helped her to her feet. “Can you walk?”
“There’s a girl.” He helped her to where the ambulances were already wailing. A paramedic scurried over and the rescuer, with a last nod at Rose, ran back towards the rubble.
“How are you feeling?” asked the paramedic briskly, rolling up her sleeves, but seeing Rose’s expression, nodded to herself. “Shock. Just sit yourself down here, there’s a good girl.”
Rose sat down and consented to having the blanket placed around her. Her vision was swimming and her awareness was growing dimmer, as though a silencer had been placed on the world; she stayed where she was and looked desperately for the Doctor.
She’d realised something, the first time she ran off with him. The day had been spent panicking, and crying, and running for her life, lots of running, and she’d escaped scary morphing plastic things and made off with a stranger in a blue box, and oddly enough hadn’t had time for tea, yet. So when she found the TARDIS kitchen, she threw something together from the oddments of food lying about, just beans on toast and two cups of tea, and carried it through to the Doctor. He ate two pieces of toast in the time it took her to put the cups safely on the floor, and she looked up at him.
“Forgot I was hungry,” he said sheepishly.
She’d realised he needed looking after, same as anybody else. And there, now, a brief movement of rubble, a white hand with a leather cuff, and she jumped up, threw off the blanket and left behind the startled yelling of the paramedic.
There was no answer, and more shouting from behind her, but she ignored it; running, running (there was an explosion!) running (not dead, not dead) and she pulled the Doctor from the rubble, her hands too warm for the cool white skin of his wrists.
Explosion. “White transit van,” the Doctor said later, “always a bloody white transit van.”
But that was later, this was now, and Rose couldn’t lift a Time Lord into life, she could only shout and slap until his eyes looked up at hers, gleaming with dying light, and he was leaning on her, dead weight with glimmerings of life. “Come on,” she said, pulling, “they want to take us to hospital...”
But she could feel the pulse beneath her fingers, two beats one-then-the-other a hundred and forty-two times a minute, and she had to keep him with her, keep him safe as he did her.
He was saying something, or trying to. She recognised the shape of the words as “without me.”
“Fuck you, Doctor,” she muttered quietly, and carried on pushing and pulling and bearing weight. The paramedics they had left behind were flying across from the Corn Exchange, keeping pace with the injured.
“Please,” Rose whispered, turning, “please leave us alone...”
But no-one heard and now they were running together, and she knew she was killing the Doctor but she was doing it for his own good, she could save him, she could save all of them, please leave us alone and then they almost ran into a red pillar box.
Rose tried not to burst into hysterical laughter – one thing left standing upright and it would have to be red and not blue – but the big silly hopelessly comforting anachronism of a telephone box was there at last, getting closer step by painful step, and the laughter started to turn into tears.
The door opened while Rose was desperately hunting for her key, and Jack jumped out in time to catch the Doctor. “Fuck! What happened?”
She shoved past him through the door and let it close firmly behind them, blocking out all sound and light from outside. Jack was shaking a little, staring at Rose, then the Doctor, then back at Rose.
She slipped to the floor, hands entwined with the Doctor’s, and said nothing.
“Rose!” Jack yelled. “What happened?”
The Doctor shifted and his fingers uncurled. From the depths of the ship, Rose thought she heard a bell ringing, but she wasn’t sure and it faded away, like a sorrow or a dream.
A neatly-folded t-shirt, a pressed rose, and one more note, no longer in teenage-girl scrawl but in an elegant, shaking hand. Jackie reads it once, reads it twice, reads it a third time, and lets her head slip to the table and the note slip to the floor.
The sunlight spills through the window, delineating the world in golden edges. Given months and seasons and the continuous passage of time, it might some day bleach out the words that lie knocked into dust:
She touched every star.
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