Thursday, December 4, 2008

Advent Day 4...................

Number 1 Gallow's Gate:



Part One. Written by Rupert Laight. Illustrations by Brian Williamson.

The first thing the Doctor heard when he woke was the sound of something tapping at a window.
He sat up in bed, ran a hand through his tangled hair and stared around him. Where am I, he thought. This isn't the TARDIS. It's a bed. A very uncomfortable bed. What am I doing in bed? I haven't got time for bed. This is madness.
The Doctor tested his memory. The last thing he remembered was... well, what was it? The TARDIS. He remembered the TARDIS. He'd been at the console when an alarm sounded. An alarm to indicate what?

After that, everything was blank.
Thoroughly confused, the Doctor looked around him. It was dark, apart from a line of light that seemed to edge the bottom of a door.
The Doctor rolled out of bed - surprised to find himself wearing pyjamas - and, squinting through the gloom, could just make out the room's sole window. It was covered with black material, pinned around the frame.
'Blackout,' he murmured to himself, and detached a corner, allowing bright morning light to flood the room.

The Doctor was standing in a small attic bedroom with a low, sloped ceiling and peeling, yellowed wallpaper. It was furnished simply with a narrow single bed and a chest of drawers, on top of which were his clothes, neatly folded.
He turned back to the dust-covered window and saw what had been making the tapping sound. The uppermost branches of a tall oak tree were scratching against the pane.
Got to find out what's going on, thought the Doctor, and he pulled on his clothes and flung open the bedroom door.

'Hello, Doctor,' said a voice on the brink of breaking. 'Did you sleep well?'
The Doctor looked down. A boy of about thirteen with ruddy cheeks and close-cropped ginger hair smiled up at him.
'How do you know my name?'
'You told us last night.'
'Us?' asked the Doctor, confused. 'Who's us?'
'Me and mother,' said the boy. 'Don't you remember?'
'Of course I do.' The Doctor thought hard but, for some reason, couldn't recall. 'Jog my memory.'
'Must be the cold, it's frozen your brain,' said the boy, and he held out his hand. 'I'm Robert. Robert Mann.'

'Nice to meet you, Robert Mann,' replied the Doctor, shaking the boy's hand enthusiastically. 'Or meet you again, I should say.' The Doctor paused a moment at the top of a staircase, still baffled as to how he'd got here.
'Come on then, or we'll be late for breakfast.'
As they descended, Robert reminded the Doctor of how he had rung the doorbell the previous evening, unable to tell them why but, as it was late, Robert's mother had offered him a bed for the night in their boarding house.
'I wonder what I wanted,' mused the Doctor. 'Oh well, who cares?' He paused. 'Hold on, that's not like me.' Then the worry vanished from his mind again. 'It's nice here,' he said. 'Maybe I'll stay.'
By now they had reached the bottom of three flights of stairs and were standing in the house's entrance hall.

'Needs a bit of a dust, doesn't it?' said the Doctor, running his finger along a picture rail.
'Can't get the staff,' said Robert. 'There is a war on.'
'A war? Is there? Which one?'
The boy chuckled. 'Are you pulling my leg?'
'Never pulled a leg in my life. And I don't joke about time. What year is this?'
Robert stared at him. 'It's 1940, of course.'
'I travel a lot,' said the Doctor. 'I get confused.'
'I wish I could travel,' replied Robert. 'I want to be an explorer when I grow up. Just like Marco Polo. He discovered spaghetti.'
'And pinched my caravan!'
'You're very strange.'

The Doctor grinned. 'It has been mentioned.'
The dining room was at the back of the house, with glass-panelled doors leading to the garden.
Seated around the oval table were five people. A young lady, a young man, an elderly lady, a stout, middle-aged gentleman and, at the head of the table, a skinny woman in her late thirties.
Robert quickly took his place, whilst the Doctor stood about awkwardly, unsure what to do.
'Please be seated,' said the thin woman brusquely.
From her red hair, the Doctor guessed her to be Robert's mother. But she lacked her son's jolly demeanour. Her features were sharp, her nose turned up as if permanently troubled by an unpleasant odour.
The Doctor sat down. 'I'm famished!'
'You can introduce yourself to the other guests,' said Mrs Mann. 'You've met Robert already.'
'He's going to be an explorer when he grows up,' said the Doctor. 'Aren't you, Rob?'
Mrs Mann snorted in derision. 'Robert changes his mind every five minutes.'
'No, I don't!' protested her son. 'I'm going to be an explorer.' He paused, then added, 'Or an engine driver.'

After the guests had helped themselves to modest portions of watery scrambled egg, the apologetic clatter of cutlery on china began.
'I'm Major Woolly,' said the stout man sat across from the Doctor. He had a blotchy complexion and a moustache that drooped over his mouth. 'So, you're a doctor, Mrs Mann tells us. Doctor what?'
'Do you know, I can't seem to remember right now,' said the Doctor.
'Shellshock is it?' said the Major. 'Terrible business, I'm sure. I knew a chap got it in the last war.' He paused to ruminate. 'That was a war all right. Not like this one. Fought it with our bare hands.'
'Must have been uncomfortable,' said the Doctor.
'Don't mind the Major,' said Mrs Mann. 'He'd love to teach Mr Hitler a thing or two. Wouldn't you, Major?'

The Major gave an unintelligible grunt and carried on with his breakfast.
Sat to his right was an elderly woman wearing a large feathered hat. She introduced herself as Miss Sillington, and gave the Doctor a warm smile.
'Welcome to our humble little guest house,' she said. 'I always call it a guest house, though strictly speaking it's a boarding house. I've lived in Sydenham since I was five years old. Then I lost all my money in the big crash. Moved in here in '33. Oldest resident.'
The Doctor's gaze was involuntarily drawn to her hat. It was a startling sight to see someone wearing something so vast and inappropriate to breakfast.
'I'm 74, you know,' added Miss Sillington, as if to explain her eccentric headgear.
Along the table, Robert giggled.
'Eat your egg,' said his mother, fixing him with a steely stare.
The Doctor caught the lad's eye and gave him an encouraging wink.
Robert then introduced the remaining two guests. Each greeted the Doctor a polite nod, but remained silent.

Miss Gibbs was probably in her early twenties. Timid-looking, she had fair hair and wore an Argyle sweater. At her side, and appearing equally bashful, sat Clive Plympton. About the same age as Miss Gibbs, he kept his head down throughout the meal, fixing his plate with a worried frown. Every once in a while, when she was sure no one was looking, Miss Gibbs would throw Mr Plympton a shy glance.

Just then, the dining room door swung open and a hefty woman of about fifty barged in, wearing a food-stained apron and carrying a tray.
'You lot finished yet?' she asked in a gravely voice.
'Very nearly, Mrs Baxter,' replied the landlady curtly.
Mrs Baxter ignored her and began collecting plates, whether the food on them was finished or not. 'Oh, and we've no gammon for lunch,' she said. 'All out of ration coupons. It'll be luncheon meat again.' And with a dismissive grunt she was gone.
'That woman,' hissed Mrs Mann, after a suitable pause. 'It's long past time I dismissed her. The food. The attitude. One of these days I'll get round to it. And that's not the only thing. The house needs a good spring clean, too. And as for Lofty... He certainly needs cutting down to size.'
'Who's Lofty?' asked the Doctor. 'Your husband?'
'Mr Mann is deceased,' replied the landlady quietly.
'Lofty is the oak tree in the garden,' explained Robert. 'Mother's been meaning to cut it down for years. It blocks out all the light to the back bedrooms.'
'Why don't you then?' asked the Doctor.
'No one ever does anything here,' said Robert.
'That will do.' His mother frowned at him.
'It's true though,' he added sulkily. 'Nothing ever happens in this house!'
Something about Robert's woeful tone struck the Doctor. Yes, there was an odd air to this place, he thought. A feeling of stagnation, of immobility.
'Leave the table at once!' ordered Mrs Mann.
Robert laid down his napkin, vacated his seat and sulkily slipped from the room.
Just then, the clock on the mantelpiece struck ten.

Robert dawdled in the hallway, waiting for the Doctor to leave the dining room. This newcomer was the most exciting thing to happen at Gallows Gate Road since... well, forever. And there was something very odd about him, thought Robert, as the Major, Miss Sillington and the rest of them filed past.

Finally, the Doctor sauntered out into the hallway, gazing distractedly about.
'Where are you from, Doctor?' asked Robert.
'What?' The Doctor was clearly miles away. 'Oh, nowhere you'll have heard of.' He stuffed his hands in his pocket and shut his eyes. 'I can't even remember what I'm doing here.' Then he turned to Robert. 'What is it about this place?'
'I don't know,' Robert replied.
'Yes, you do,' insisted the Doctor.
'I do?' said Robert, confused. And he thought very hard as to what the newcomer meant.
This house was all he had ever known. He'd been born here. He'd grown up here. Father had died when he was six years old, and after that his mother had taken in paying guests. But the Doctor was right. There was something strange about the place.
'Yes... I think I know what you mean. All the residents are hopeless, aren't they? I want to be an architect, but they don't want to do anything.'

'Exactly!' The Doctor took Robert by the shoulders. 'And it means we have a lot of work to do, Robby-boy. So let's get to it!' And he bounded off up the stairs.
'Get to what?' Robert called after him.
'Questioning the guests, of course,' replied the Doctor. 'You take the Major and Miss Gibbs. I'll speak to Miss Sillington and Mr Plympton.' He paused, frowning. 'One of them is not what they seem.'
Miss Sillington had taken off her hat. Sitting in her small, sparsely furnished room was clearly not occasion enough for the dilapidated headgear.
'These are amazing,' said the Doctor, studying the collection of colourful paintings that covered one wall. The Doctor thought he recognised her style. Yes, he did. There was a picture just like them in the National Portrait Gallery in London - of a famous writer. And he was sure that was painted in 1940 by an M. Sillington. 'Have you ever met T.S. Eliot?' he asked.
'T.S. who?' murmured the elderly lady.

But the Doctor barely heard her. He was drawn to one painting in particular. It was quite unlike the rest - a study of a tree, rendered in total realism. He squinted at the date in the corner. 1933. 'This is the most recent one,' he said. 'But that was seven years ago.'
'Just after I took lodgings here.'
'Why did you stop? You're a brilliant painter!'
'Well...' she began. But then there was a long pause. 'I don't really know,' she said at last. 'I just... lost my confidence. Who'd be interested in my little daubs? I'm hardly going to be a famous artist now. I'm 74, you know.'

'Doesn't matter if you're 104. Never too late to be brilliant.' The Doctor beamed. 'I should know.'
'When I was your age I lived just two streets from here,' mused Miss Sillington, clearly caught up in her own thoughts. 'There was a lot of talk about this house back then.'
'What kind of talk?'
'No one would go near the place. They said the house was cursed. All nonsense, of course. Merely rumours.' Miss Sillington frowned, as if trying to remember something.
'Rumours usually start for a reason,' said the Doctor.
'You can't seriously believe...' Miss Sillington's frail voice trailed off.
'It is a very strange house,' she admitted finally.

One flight of stairs further up No.1 Gallows Gate Road, Robert had slipped into the empty bedroom of Major Woolly. He was examining the lapel of an Army dress jacket hanging on a peg beside the bed. It was adorned with medals from the First World War.
'What are you doing in here, boy?' barked the Major, who'd slipped quietly into the room behind him. But his frown immediately shifted into a proud beam when he spotted what his intruder was looking at. 'Admiring the brass, eh?'
'You must have been quite a soldier,' said Robert. 'Why aren't you out there now? You can't be too old for it.'
'No, of course not. But you see, it's, er...' The Major shuffled awkwardly from one foot to the other. 'I'm no coward, if that's what you're getting at.'
'Obviously not. So what's stopping you?' asked Robert in his best detective tone.
Major Woolly's face twisted into a pained pout. To Robert, it looked as if, for the first time in years, the man was really searching his soul.
'I don't know,' stammered the Major after a long, strained silence. 'I just... can't.' As the clock over the hearth struck noon, the Doctor and Robert were standing in the chilly drawing room swapping notes.

Robert told the Doctor everything he'd learned about the Major, and then he moved on to Miss Gibbs.
Every weekday she took the train into the offices of a small publishing house, to make notes on unsolicited manuscripts. The rest of the time, however, it was clear her only occupation was the study of Mr Plympton.
The Doctor then explained that Clive Plympton's income came from writing articles about historical events for monthly periodicals. But, it transpired, he really wanted to pen a passionate historical novel.

'Is that everyone?' asked the Doctor.
'Yes,' said Robert. 'Apart from Mrs Baxter.'
'Did I hear my name?' Mrs Baxter stood in the doorway, hands on hips. 'I suppose you'll be wanting tea.'
'Actually, it was you we wanted,' said the Doctor. 'How long have you worked here, Mrs Baxter?'
'Since 1934,' replied the cook. 'For my sins.'
'Happy?' The Doctor stared at her.
'Don't be daft,' she replied.
'Why not leave then?'
'Well, if truth be told, I would like to retire.' She stared out of the window with a faraway expression. 'To Dorset maybe. I've a sister there. I could keep a pig. Trouble is, they'd never cope here without me.'
'I reckon they'd manage,' said the Doctor. 'Don't you, Rob?'
Robert nodded.
'Charmed, I'm sure,' huffed Mrs Baxter. 'Now, if that's all the silly questions, I'll get back to my kitchen. It's lunch in half an hour, and them tins of meat won't open themselves.'
The Doctor stared into the space newly vacated by Mrs Baxter, his expression dark. 'Someone here is sapping every last drop of ambition from these people. And I'm going to find out who it is.' With that, he sprang towards the door.
'Where are you going?' asked Robert.
'To the TARDIS. Er, my motor car.'
'Spaceship, you mean!'

The Doctor froze in the doorway.
'Only an alien would keep something like this in his pocket.'
Robert held up the Doctor's sonic screwdriver.
'That's my... Where did you get that?'
'I went through your pockets last night.'
A smile lit up the Doctor's face. 'You're a cheeky monkey, aren't you? I like that. Just what I'd do. Now give it here!'
He snatched the sonic screwdriver from Robert's hand and left the room.
Robert congratulated himself. He knew he'd been right.
Out in the hall, the Doctor was thinking hard. He had to remember why he'd come here, where he'd been going before the TARDIS was dragged off-course. Had it been dragged off-course? Surely this house wasn't affecting him too? He'd faced tougher competition than the residents of a scruffy semidetached in Sydenham.
He looked down at the sonic screwdriver in his hand. I'm the Doctor, he thought defiantly. I'm a Time Lord. I can travel from one side of the Universe to the other in the blink of an eye. That must be something to be proud of?
He shook himself, turned towards the front door and gripped the handle. Just then, the world began to spin.

'Doctor?' he heard Robert calling urgently. 'Doctor! Are you all right?'
But dark clouds filled the Doctor's mind, and though he tugged at the door, he couldn't open it. He knew it wasn't locked or jammed - it was he who didn't have the strength, the determination, to leave this place.
And then he forgot even that, as No.1 Gallows Gate Road seemed to slip further and further away and total blackness engulfed everything.
The last thing he heard was a boy's voice screaming his name.
'Doctor! Doctoooor!'