A Dangerous Arrival
The Cutty Sark was once one of the fastest clipper ships in the British fleet. Built in 1869, the same year that the Suez Canal was opened, she (for ships are always ‘she’) had broken records for the fastest journey from Australia to Britain, had briefly spent time in the employ of a Portuguese company under the name Ferreira, before she spent her final active years as a training ship. In 1954, she was moved to a dry dock in Greenwich, London, where she resides to this day. The ship’s name came from a Scottish phrase, meaning a short night-dress, which was used as a nickname for a witch in Robert Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter. Its role in the Rani’s trap for the Doctor was, however, entirely coincidental, acting merely as an anchorpoint to draw the TARDIS off course.
On the quay beside the Cutty Sark, about eight feet from the ground, a light appeared and flashed. The air seemed to shimmer, accompanied by a wheezing, groaning sound, and the TARDIS – the Doctor’s TARDIS – faded slowly into existence. The double doors of the police box opened inwards, releasing two figures, coughing and spluttering through a cloud of murky smoke. One was a smallish dark-haired man. He wore shabby brown checked trousers, with a Paisley scarf hanging loosely over a brown sports jacket that failed to cover up a garish fair-isle pullover. In one hand, he clutched a red-handled umbrella, in the other, he fanned away the smoke with a battered straw hat. He popped the hat back on his head and peered around him with keen grey eyes. ‘Oh, to be in China now that November’s here,’ he said hopefully.
The other figure was a brown-haired, round-faced girl in a badge-covered bomber jacket. She too looked around, though with considerably less enthusiasm. ‘Great Wall of China? Looks more like the Cutty Sark to me!’ She closed the TARDIS doors behind her. ‘When was the last time you had that junk heap in for an MOT, professor?’
‘Don’t be cynical, Ace. The instruments are just a little erratic, that’s all.’
The Doctor was used to the TARDIS behaving erratically, so had no reason to suspect any outside influences. He spied a newspaper in a nearby bin, picked it up and flicked away some leftover chips. The front page of the paper declared ‘JUST MARRIED!’ with a black-and-white photo of a woman in a voluminous, high-necked wedding dress and a man in formal military uniform. The Doctor checked the date: ’15 November… 1973?’ It was just possible that he’d set the coordinates incorrectly, but… might some unknown power have drawn them off course? Only one way to know for sure – back to the TARDIS!
Impulsive as ever, Ace was already clambering over the barrier to explore the clipper ship. ‘Anybody home?’ she shouted.
At that precise moment, the Doctor heard a sound – a voice!
‘Mayday, mayday…‘ it began.
‘Ace, come down from there – we have to lea-‘
A white flash engulfed the duo and they disappeared. A few seconds later, an opportunistic seagull swooped down and began to chomp on the chips from the discarded newspaper.
Just short of three miles north of the site of the Cutty Sark was a small suburban square. It was bordered on three sides by houses, while the fourth side boasted an old Victorian-style pub and an access road that ran through a market.
A flash of light and the Doctor and his companion popped into position. Ace was momentarily distracted by a rack of clothes on one of the stalls and was about to ask the Doctor for some time-appropriate money – but the Doctor was gone! In his place was a tall, thick-set man with a mop of light-brown curls. Gone too were the Doctor’s tasteful mishmash of muted browns and Paisley patterns. The newcomer’s yellow-and-black striped trousers, vivid enough in themselves, were positively sober compared to a patchwork multi-coloured coat that would have made Joseph’s technicolor garb look drab by comparison. Slashes and patches of reds, yellows, greens, purples, and pinks, all in varying shades and hues, fought savagely for predominance. This horrific ensemble was finished off with a flowing cravat, a bright red affair with large white spots.
‘Here, you’re not the Doctor!, said Ace. The man smiled patiently.
‘Yes I am, Ace.’ As improbable as it seemed, Ace believed him. She’d learned long ago that the Doctor was just the kind of person to do something weird like this. ‘We seem to have slipped a groove in time,’ this new Doctor purred. ‘But where are we? And, more pertinently – when?’
Ace looked around. The architecture was definitely English, not some alien world or anything like that. The pub on the corner looked normal enough – ‘The Queen Vic’ according to the faded sign hanging above the door. In the centre of the square was a small stretch of green and on the surrounding railings was a sign: ‘ALBERT SQUARE, E20’. They’d jumped across the Thames to East London! That answered one of the Doctor’s questions. But what about the when?
The market stall holder hadn’t seen them arrive. Indeed nobody seemed to have noticed the time travellers materialise, or if they had they were far too busy with their own affairs to say anything. But as a young woman in a bomber jacket searched frantically through his clothes racks, he could spot a potential customer. He stepped forward and began his well-practiced patter.
‘All right, darling. Special discount for you seeing as it’s nearly Christmas.’
‘Wicked!’ said Ace, as she continued to search for clues. Before she had become an adventurer in time and space, she’d lived in Perivale on the opposite side of London. She’d loved sneaking onto the Central Line with her friends and looking for bargains in the market in Shepherd’s Bush. Sometimes she heard boys shouting racial abuse at the stall holders – sometimes she shouted back and had to be restrained by her friends – but here, she heard passers-by say hello to the man and his wife. ‘Morning, Sanjay! Hiya Gita!’ They were clearly well liked, even if Gita, his wife, was looking at Ace with a frown. She elbowed her husband with consternation.
‘What do you mean, “discount”? This year’s been bad enough as it is without you giving things away.’
‘Don’t worry about it, all right?’ said Sanjay through a forced grin. ‘She’s in a rush – more likely to buy something!’ Gita took the hint and instantly became welcoming and helpful. She could see the young woman was clearly looking for something for her friend, who for some reason was dressed like a clown.
‘Hey, do you like that, love?’ asked Gita.
‘It clashes!’ said the clown. But Gita could smell a sale here.
‘Try it on, it’ll suit you. I tell you, they’re going to be all the rage in 1994.’
The Doctor frowned. ‘Did you say nineteen ninety-f-‘
There was a flash of light. Gita looked up, expecting to see a sky streaked with lightning, but there was just the usual, slate-grey November sky. When she looked down, the strange couple had disappeared – and that nice jacket was on the floor. So much for a quick sale! Well, at least they hadn’t stolen the jacket. Gita picked up the garment, brushed it down and then popped it over a coat hanger and returned it to the rack.
Another change of location, but this time it was just a few feet as the Doctor opened his eyes to find himself standing in the small garden in the centre of the square. He looked down at the ground to find well-polished shoes at the end of very long legs. The carnival coat had become a sophisticated midnight-blue velvet smoking jacket and an opera cape. The cuffs of his shirt were frilled. Ah! He must have changed again! He was now in his third persona, the one who the Time Lords had exiled to Earth. It was turning out to be a very strange day indeed if he could jump from his shortest incarnation to his tallest in just a matter of minutes. He was grateful that his clothing seemed to match whichever body he ended up in.
The tall Time Lord looked around for Ace. Instead, a diminutive woman with a mane of red hair and an inquisitive glint in her eye looked up hopefully at him. ‘Mel?’
Mel had never met this particular form of the Doctor, having travelled with the short Scottish one just before Ace came aboard the TARDIS. This one was very tall and slim, with a young-old face and a mane of prematurely white hair. He was a bit of a dandy, Mel thought, but she knew it was the same old Doctor. When they first met, he had been the colourful clown that Ace had encountered only seconds ago. Mel had a particular talent for rushing in where fools would fear to tread, but she also had a quick mind and an amazing memory. ‘Memory like an elephant’, the Doctor often joked, as if comparing a huge, wrinkly pachyderm to this petite, porcelain doll of a girl was remotely appropriate.
Only momentarily phased, Mel quickly got to work with pertinent questions. For some reason, she had a vague awareness of what was happening, as if Ace’s recent memories were her own. This could prove confusing – or very useful indeed!
‘What’s changed?’ She looked around. ‘There are more cars now. Oh – and most of the houses have small white dishes on the sides!’
‘Satellite dishes, yes. It’s how people receive their television pictures in… well, a few years after your time.’ Mel had joined the Doctor back in 1986.
‘So we started in 1973, jumped forward to 1993 and now we’re…’ Mel sighed impatiently. ‘What’s happening, Doctor?’
‘Change. You, me, everything. It’s as though someone is rooting through my personal time stream.’
‘But why? What do they want with us?’
‘What indeed?’ The Doctor led Mel back towards the market. Opposite where the clothing stall had been was a barrow selling fruit and vegetables. Two women of maturing years were standing gossiping and failed to spy a young boy stealing an orange until he pushed past them and ran between the Doctor and Mel. The Doctor approached the stall.
‘Excuse me, my good woman, but er… what year is this?’ The older woman ignored him, turning to her companion in fury.
‘The brass neck of ‘im. Kids today!’ The other woman smiled sympathetically.
‘Forget him, Pauline, he’s not worth it. Anyway, shouldn’t your Martin be looking after the stall?’ The older woman rolled her eyes.
‘That lad’s never ‘ere when you want him, Kathy. I wish my Arthur was still alive.’ Pauline was about to start reminiscing. She’d lived in the square all her life. Got married, had three kids. But now her husband was dead. Her eldest son, Mark died too, ten years ago next April. Her daughter Michelle had moved to America soon after her own daughter – Pauline’s granddaughter – had been born. And now Pauline was left with the fruit-and-veg stall, which had been part of the family for generations, and a teenage son who had no interest in becoming a grocer… and then she noticed the tall man with the white hair and the fancy clothes. He picked up an apple from the barrow, looked at the barcode sticker and chuckled to himself. His familiarity with all forms of computer language enabled him to deduce the price from the pattern of vertical lines on the sticker.
There was something about this man, with his frills and cape, that really annoyed Pauline. She was not a tall woman by any means, but she puffed up her bosom and stood her full height.
‘What do you think you’re doing? Stop messing the goods about. Do you want to buy something or not?’
The Doctor, never one to respect authority, couldn’t resist undermining her affrontery. ‘Well considering the quality of everything you have, madam, I would say that your prices are rather expensive.’
Mel had stepped over to the clothes stall, which was now managed by Pauline’s sister-in-law, Kathy. She pulled a pair of women’s trousers from the rack and tried to check the price tag.
‘Doctor, look – flares are back in fashion.’ Just as Sanjay had done before with Ace, Kathy sidled over in hope of a sale.
‘Yeah, everything from the last century seems to be having a comeback.’ This news startled Mel.
‘This is going to sound odd, but… what year is this?’ Her bizarre question was loud enough for Pauline to hear – and she’d already run out of patience for one day.
‘Oh, don’t you start. There’s enough oddballs around here as it is!’ But the tall stranger with the shock of white hair turned to her with a look of intensity.
‘Madam – what year is this?’
Without further question, the two women chimed together: ‘Two thousand and thirteen!’
And then there was a flash of white light. The women both blinked and then found they were alone together. The strange couple had disappeared!