10. "Love With The Proper Stranger"
She found half a cake in a tin and made some more tea before we started.
‘This all happened,’ she began, ‘directly after the near-disaster we had with the TARDIS. In fact, the ship still wasn’t working properly. We landed on a snow-covered mountainside and we had to go looking for fuel to keep warm during the night. Susan and the Doctor told us we were in the Himarleyers—’
‘The Himalayas,’ she repeated. This time I understood what she was saying; her pronunciation had thrown me the first time. ‘I forget most English people aren’t used to hearing it said that way. A product of our brief visit to India.’
‘Okay – so you were on Earth. But not…not in the 1960’s I’d guess, or you’d have tried to get home.’
She nodded. ‘It was a little while before we realised just how far from home we were – in terms of time. We found a strange footprint, and then I thought I saw some kind of animal, but all we encountered on that mountainside were human beings.’
‘No yeti, then?’
‘I think the yeti are probably a myth, although I must admit the idea did cross my mind when I first saw movement.’
‘There’s one here, you know. In London.’
After so long it was her turn to doubt me. ‘What?’ She sat forward.
‘It was brought back by some Professor – just before the war, I think. They reckon it’s some kind of mechanical thing built by the Chinese, or something.’
‘You’ve seen it?’
‘With my Dad, years ago.’
‘What does it look like?’
‘Like you’d expect – big and hairy.’
She seemed fascinated. ‘And you say it’s mechanical? Some kind of robot?’
‘I didn’t say robot.’ I grinned. ‘You spent too much time in space. I think it has moveable joints and so on, but they weren’t able to discover any power source – there’s no evidence it ever actually moved.’
‘And…what was this Professor’s name?’
‘Um…can’t remember.’ I shrugged. ‘Sorry…it was years ago. You talking about animals in the Himalay—sorry, Himarleyers reminded me, that’s all. Is it important?’
She sat back. ‘I suppose not. Perhaps I should go and look at it sometime, if it’s still there.’ She paused. ‘Uh…where was I?’
‘Meeting humans on the mountain.’
‘Oh yes. We were surrounded by Mongols – they intended to kill us, thinking we were some kind of evil spirits, but they were—’
‘And of course you understood what they were saying?’
She bobbed her head. ‘It was something we hardly noticed at the time. It wasn’t as if they were speaking English, not really – if you concentrated you could hear the words as they were spoken, in whatever language. But you understood instantly. It wasn’t until we landed in France that we became fully conscious of the process. Ian and I both knew some French, and because of that it was easier to hear the original words being spoken. But that was actually rather unsettling – in some ways it was easier with a completely alien tongue.’
I tried to digest this, but I ended by concluding it probably wasn’t something that was easy to put into words. ‘So…obviously the Mongols didn’t kill you.’
‘No.’ She smiled. ‘We were saved by a European, who invoked the name of Kublai Khan in ordering the Mongols to spare us.’ Her eyes were bright. ‘Can you guess who he was?’
‘Uh…well, the only European I can think of…’ I stared at her. ‘Not Marco Polo?’
She nodded. ‘It was 1289, and we were in Cathay, as they used to call China.’
‘You sound like a teacher again,’ I cautioned her. ‘So you’re telling me, that out of all the universe and all the span of time, you managed to run into one of the most famous explorers in history?’
‘I wonder if the TARDIS had some kind of instinct for these things,’ she smiled. ‘Later on we met Napoleon, Nero, Saladin…’
‘Quite an experience for you, as a history teacher.’
‘Rather a humbling one. The first thing I learned was how different the reality sometimes was from the sanitised accounts in books. You read about the Crusades or the French Revolution, about massacres and torture and the guillotine, but that doesn’t begin to prepare you for the reality. The dirt, the stench, the sight of so many bodies…’ She sat back, crossing her legs, and I was momentarily distracted until she rearranged the dressing gown.
‘Shall we go back to the mountain.’
‘I do seem to keep digressing, don’t I? Well…it was odd. In a funny way I think I felt more threatened by danger on Earth than on some of the other planets we visited. The Daleks terrified me when I first saw them, but it was a kind of general terror. I simply didn’t know what they were or what they wanted. When a band of bloodthirsty Mongols are coming towards you with swords the fear is rather more specific.’ She paused, clearly thinking. ‘Marco took us under his protection, but there was a price. One of the Mongols had seen us all come out of the TARDIS – our caravan, as we called it – and they believed it was the source of our evil power. So while we journeyed we were kept away from it – which of course meant the Doctor couldn’t work on repairing it. He was furious, and wouldn’t talk to Marco for a long time. That was a shame – under happier conditions I’m sure he would have enjoyed Polo’s company.
‘And there was another problem. Marco had come up with the idea of giving the TARDIS to the Khan in exchange for the freedom to go home. He was worried about his position there – the Khan was getting old, and I think Marco doubted he would long survive him. ‘As you can imagine,’ she smiled again, ‘we weren’t too pleased about Marco’s plan. It was impossible to convince Marco how badly we depended on the TARDIS – Ian even tried telling him the whole truth, but…well, there wasn’t any evidence we could present, and by that time Marco had already found us capable of lying when we were desperate enough. Why should he believe in a ship that could cross Space and Time?
‘But even Marco’s plan wasn’t our biggest problem. Travelling with Marco’s group was a Mongol called Tegana, supposedly a peace emissary from the Warlord Noghai; in fact Tegana was an assassin who planned the kill the Khan when the moment was right. Polo trusted him completely, but it became obvious to us that Tegana was up to no good. This created a lot of friction between Marco and our party; on a couple of occasions we tried to show him what Tegana was really like, but fate seemed to conspire against us.’
She stopped, her face sober. ‘Tegana’s treachery led to one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I followed him to a cave during one of our stops, but I was seen and taken by his associates. They…they planned to kill me. I was kept alive for several hours, but I understood everything they said, the jokes they were making…I knew they couldn’t let me go, and all I could do was pray that Ian and the others would somehow find me. But rescue seemed so unlikely; my captors sat there and played dice, looking at me every now and then with…with…I suppose I was lucky they left me alone. In the end the others did find me, literally in the nick of time. I thought I’d overcome my tendency to give in to fear while we were on Skaro – I learned differently. Still,’ she mused, ‘I suppose it didn’t take me too long to recover. I accused Tegana, but Marco wouldn’t listen. We were kept under a kind of house arrest – and Susan was separated from Ping Cho, a young Chinese girl to whom she’d formed an attachment. It was a very difficult time – I’d come so close to being murdered, and Marco still couldn’t see the truth.’
She looked straight at me. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve ever been to the Gobi desert?’
‘I’ve never been further than West Germany – a visit to my mum’s relatives.’
‘Well…it was a long, tortuous journey. There was a terrific sandstorm, when we thought we’d lost Susan. Tegana poisoned our water barrels, then we were ambushed by bandits…it was one thing after another. Can you imagine what it’s like to journey for days, sleeping on the ground, never being able to wash properly, travelling through blistering heat and freezing cold…Ian was incredible, as always. I do remember, in the middle of that long night when we sat listening to the screaming sand outside, not knowing whether we’d ever see Susan again…I remember wondering how Ian kept himself going. He never seemed to despair. I did think, then, he might…lack the imagination to be frightened. That might sound terribly unfair, but I did find it so difficult to understand. He was even able to get some sleep while we waited for daybreak – even knowing that Susan was lost out there somewhere. He was – is – supremely practical.’
‘There are worse things to be.’
‘Yes.’ She brought her hands up to her chin, steepling the fingers. ‘Yes, I know. But that lack of…I don’t know, the ability to dream, the imaginative faculty…it put up barriers between us.’
It looked dangerously as though she was returning to thinking about the phone call. ‘So…I suppose you’re going to tell me you met Kublai Khan as well?’
‘Oh, yes. It was actually the Doctor who spent the most time with him – the Khan was feeling his age and the Doctor was able to play on that by exaggerating his own infirmity, as he sometimes did. I’m sure he could have wrestled Ian to a standstill, if he’d wanted.’
‘And this…Mongol assassin? What happened about him?’
She gave a moment to recollection. ‘We were all taken to Peking. We’d had to leave the ship behind, which was worrying, but although Tegana had tried to get it shipped off to his master, Noghai, Ian managed to stop him, and the TARDIS was brought safely to the Khan’s palace. In the meantime Noghai had moved his forces much closer than had been agreed; the Khan wanted to ask Tegana what was going on. I think it was at that stage that Marco saw that Tegana was not what he claimed to be. We managed to deduce his plan – Ian was in prison for trying to "steal" the TARDIS but we freed him – and we saved the Khan’s life.’
‘And – let me guess – he gave you the TARDIS.’
‘It wasn’t quite that simple. The Doctor had already tried to win the TARDIS at backgammon, wagering it against hundreds of horses, tigers and elephants he’d won from the Khan – but he lost the crucial game. In the end…it was Marco who gave us back the key. I think it was probably an act of contrition – he had wronged us, after all, and he was basically a very fair man. I like to think that, despite it all, we were friends at the end.’
‘And Kublai was happy enough for you to have the ship back?’
‘As I recall he wasn’t given much choice in the matter…but perhaps he wouldn’t have minded. You remember I told you about Ping Cho – Susan’s friend? She was in Peking for an arranged marriage, though fortunately she didn’t have to go through with it – the man was four times her age. He died on the eve of the wedding, but Ping Cho elected to stay at the Khan’s palace, and Kublai asked her for her opinion of us. I’m not quite sure why he placed so much value on her verdict – the wisdom of age recognising the clear sight of youth, perhaps. Ping Cho spoke unhesitatingly in our favour. The Khan dropped all the charges against Ian, left us free to do as we wished – and Marco gave us the final thing we needed.’
‘Mmn. There must be quite a lot of detail you left out of that,’ I said. ‘Do you think you’ll write it down sometime?’
‘Do you want me to?’
The question took me by surprise. ‘Um…I don’t know. Like you said, the details seem…somehow less crucial now.’ I wondered if I should confess my literary ambitions for her stories. ‘It’s up to you.’
‘It was an important adventure,’ she murmured. ‘By the time it was over, the last trace of hostility between ourselves and the Doctor had vanished. The hardships we endured together had made us more than companions – when we got back into the TARDIS, we were friends.’
I considered her words for a few seconds. I had no idea what the time was. I said: ‘Talk some more about the Doctor. You say he looked human – completely human? What made you so sure he wasn’t – I mean, couldn’t he have been putting on an act? I’m not saying I can think of any good reason why he should, but…well…’
‘I suppose it was the ship that convinced us. After all, there was nothing on Earth to compare with it. I don’t think there will be, for a very long time. The Doctor himself could have been simply an eccentric old man, I suppose – except for odd moments when there was a strange glitter in his eye, an odd sort of…impenetrability about him. At times like those I really did believe he’d seen things that none of us could even imagine. And Susan…Susan was a strange mixture of the ordinary and the unearthly. Perhaps the more alien traits of her race were preserved in…I don’t know, a slightly rawer form in her. She’d had less time to adjust to the ways of other races.’
I wagged my head wonderingly. ‘The weirdest thing is that I must have been at Coal Hill at about the same time she was – and you were – and I don’t remember either of you. I can’t believe I didn’t notice at all – I was looking for distractions, believe me.’
‘Susan was a very striking looking girl,’ Barbara said, in a voice full of latent conflict.
‘When did all this start?’ I asked, suddenly thinking of something. ‘I don’t think you told me the exact date.’
‘It was November, 1963. I don’t remember precisely – it must have been before Kennedy was shot, because that was quite a shock when we got back – but not long before.’
‘That explains it. My dad took early retirement in November ’63. We got here just in time for Christmas. I started at Coal Hill in January.’ Something else came into my head. ‘Wait a minute…I do remember something. There were lots of whispers, something about a couple of teachers who’d disappeared. Everyone thought they—you…had eloped.’
She nodded. ‘That was a story we considered when we got back. I didn’t think it would quite wash – after all we hadn’t been going out at the time. In the end we did use it for some people – it seemed to be what they wanted to believe. Did…did you hear anything about Susan?’
‘Not that I recall…oh, unless…I do remember some of them talking about a girl who’d left. I did get the impression she’d been an odd one…I think everyone just assumed she’d moved on. Her family was a bit…’ I trailed off, nodding slowly. ‘…A bit mysterious.’
Barbara was staring at the floor. ‘I went back there. In 1965. Not in hope of getting my job back, or anything. I just wanted to…to apologise, I suppose. I might as well not have bothered. The Head had changed, the younger teachers were all new, and the older ones just looked askance at me, as if it had been no more than they expected from a "youngster". That was upsetting, actually. I had thought I had a good relationship with the other staff – I’d had lots of comments about how refreshing it was to encounter such a "responsible young woman"…it seems all it took was the first little thing…’
‘Not so little, really.’
‘No.’ She smiled absently. ‘No, I suppose not. But I would have expected them at least to ask "what happened?" I thought they knew the kind of person I was.’ She sighed. ‘I thought I knew them.’
‘It must have been a very strange time for you – lots of awkward encounters.’
‘Mmn.’ The sound was heartfelt; she was obviously remembering.
‘So…what happened with your family?’
‘Ohhh…’ She put her head back, looking at the ceiling. ‘My mother was delighted – then hurt, of course, that I’d been out of touch for so long. I could hardly blame her – there was no way to convince her of the truth. My sister was frosty, at first – she’d had to cope with mum, and then with…with dad’s death…’
I pitched my voice as soft as I could make it. ‘You regret not being able to say goodbye to him, don’t you?’
She nodded. ‘It’s one of those stupid things. The last I time I saw him, we argued. I think I was defending the agnostic, humanist position against religious fanaticism. I wish I could tell him that he was closer to the truth than I was.’
I could think of nothing to say in reply to this. ‘Your sister thawed out, eventually?’ I managed after a moment’s thought.
‘Yes. She could see how genuinely distressed I was at our estrangement – and how I regretted my absence and the trouble it had caused.’
‘Did you ever try to talk to her about what had happened to you?’
‘I did think about it. But when I approached the subject, even obliquely, she wasn’t interested. She’s one of these people who think the world is in enough of a mess as it is, without us worrying about life elsewhere. You can imagine how she reacted when she found out I was reading science fiction.’
‘What about…what about Ian? Sounds like they might be on the same wavelength – couldn’t he have tried talking to her?’
‘I think I said; Ian was convinced that we should tell no one about our experiences – certainly not at the start. We were going to have enough trouble fitting in as it was. That was our first serious difference of opinion – I could see the practicality of what he was saying, but I felt what we’d seen was too important to be hidden away…’
I had to get away from the subject of Ian, and I had only one card left to play. ‘What’s the time?’
‘You should get yourself a watch,’ she murmured, then sat up straight as she looked at her wrist. ‘Oh my God. It’s past midnight. I had no idea...’ She came to her feet, looking at me in horror. ‘You’ve missed everything – buses, trains…’
‘It doesn’t matter. It’ll only take about an hour to wa—’
‘You can’t walk home.’ She went to the window and lifted the curtain. Sleet thrashed against the glass, a sound I now realised I had been hearing for about the last hour. Barbara turned to me. ‘We’ve only just about got you dried out. I won’t have you going out in that.’
This was unexpected, but even in my mental turmoil something occurred to me. ‘Does your landlady know I’m still here?’
Barbara frowned. ‘I suppose she must do. She keeps a close…oh, who cares? I’m fed up with tiptoeing around her. You can’t go out in weather like this – that’s final. Anyway, you’re my nephew, aren’t you.’
‘Anything you say.’ I watched her carefully, wondering if the implications would sink in once she’d got over her fit of righteous indignation. Her dressing gown had loosened at the neck and she pulled it closed with an automatic movement.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘I can’t let you do this. I saw that bed. This is the only blanket you’ve got. You’ll be shivering all night.’
She looked at me, her eyes taking in the blanket. She became very still and her eyes met mine. ‘Unless we sleep together.’
I didn’t trust myself to speak.
‘You understand,’ she said in an even tone, coming closer, ‘exactly what I’m saying? Whatever by-play may have passed between us, I do mean sleep.’ She stopped a few feet away from me. ‘I do trust you, Conrad – and I think I trust myself. I just want it to be absolutely clear. This is not "no" meaning "yes". I think that even to attempt any kind of…anything like that would be stupid, reckless – not to mention unfair to Caro.’
After a moment she nodded tightly. ‘As long as we understand each other.’
‘Perhaps I should go home, after all. Maybe the rain’ll let up. Maybe—’
‘You can’t go all that way in clothes that are already wet. You’ll come down with something. I’m not going to be responsible for making you miss work.’
I shrugged. ‘Okay, Miss. Whatever you say, Miss.’
She lifted an eyebrow. ‘If you used that tone at school I’m not surprised you had a hard time.’
‘I was a very good pupil. It wasn’t my fault…all original minds feel stifled at school.’
‘Even if that were true – which I’m not prepared to concede – you’ll need to change some things about your approach to writing before you can call yourself original.’
‘You can’t lecture me in your dressing gown at past midnight when we’re about to climb into bed together.’
We stared at one another for a moment. She looked as if she was on the verge of bursting into tears. Or laughter. She extended a hand. ‘Give me the blanket, so I can put it on the bed.’
After a brief hesitation I unwrapped it from around my legs and lifted it up to her waiting grasp. She seemed to hold it high as she took it with both hands, almost as if she was using it as a barrier between us. She turned and went into the bedroom. I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or disappointed that she hadn’t even glanced at me in my state of semi-undress. I can’t imagine that I cut a very impressive figure in my shirt and underpants. And there was still the bedroom to negotiate.
I drew my legs up and wrapped my arms around them. Despite the heater the room seemed suddenly chilly.
Barbara appeared in the doorway. ‘Give me a moment. Could you turn off the heater?’
‘Sure.’ She went back into the bedroom and I examined the heater. By the time I had turned it off and skipped across the window to assure myself that yes, it was still pouring outside, she was back in the doorway, wearing a sleeveless mid-length white night-dress. She did look me up and down, but then I can’t pretend I wasn’t doing the same.
I wondered if we might sleep with the sheet between us, but when I entered the bedroom I saw she had peeled the bedclothes neatly back as one. The bed looked smaller than I remembered. I recalled sleeping in a single bed with a girl about two years before; they encouraged intimacy rather than slumber.
She gestured towards the bed. I felt, very strongly, that I would never be able to get in if she was already there, so I went over quickly and slipped my legs in. The sheet was cold.
She gave me a tight, awkward smile and went through the door. I wondered what she was up to – was she about to make some absurd gesture of self-sacrifice and sleep out there in a chair? – but then the light in the main room went out and she came back in and shut the door.
She seemed to hesitate. I wondered if her heart was working as hard as mine. To try to make things easier I turned on my side and picked up the book that lay on the small table. I looked at the cover. It was a slim volume called Day by Day With Bhagavan, Volume One. Trying to ignore Barbara coming closer, I opened the book.
It was difficult to fasten my attention on a page full of words when my entire body was tensed in expectation. I flipped the pages without seeing anything; the face of "Bhagavan" did look familiar, but I couldn’t bring myself to think about that.
I felt her take hold of the bedclothes, lifting them slightly. There seemed to be a large pulsing presence in my throat, preventing me from breathing. The mattress leaned and I felt the weight of the bedclothes on my legs shift slightly as she must have put one leg in. Then she put her full weight on the bed and presumably brought up the other leg. I felt the material of her night-dress brushing against the back of my knee, then her foot against my heel.
I was staring unseeingly at the book; it was a shape covered with squiggles in front of my eyes, nothing more.
Once she had pulled up the covers on her side she lay very still. I could almost feel the tension in her body; I dare say she could feel the tension in mine.
I shut the book and replaced it very, very carefully on the table. I realised I was trying not to alert her to the fact that I was no longer looking at it. But why? What was I afraid of?
My attempt at stealth had been in vain anyway. She murmured: ‘Can you switch the light off, if you’re ready?’
I hummed assent, not trusting myself to form any actual words. As I reached for the light I wondered what Caro would make of this scenario. I doubted I would be able to tell her about it; she could hardly help but misunderstand.
I switched off the light. As my eyes adjusted I noticed that the room was not particularly dark. There was light coming from the street, through the thin curtains, throwing the silhouette of the window over the bottom of the bed, across the floor and a little way up the wall.
As I settled my head on the flat pillow, I reflected that Caro would not have to misunderstand this to have legitimate objections. How honest had I been with myself? Hadn’t there been, lurking right at the back of my mind, the thought that this might happen if I missed that last train? Had I engineered the whole thing while flying the flag of compassion?
But what if I had? Was I expecting anything to happen? Did I want something to happen? Was I hoping, by putting her in this position, to coax Barbara into making the first move and so absolve me of some of the guilt? What would I do if she turned and put her arms around me?
As if in answer to my thought she shifted. I felt the unmistakable shape of her shoulder against my back.
‘I’m sorry,’ she murmured. ‘The bed really wasn’t built for this.’
‘Sure you don’t want me to get dressed and go?’
The only sensible thing to do would have been to lie still and try to get some rest, but somehow, I couldn’t. I inched as far over to the edge of the bed as I could manage, then turned gingerly, coming onto my back. I wanted to look at her in the semi-darkness.
She was lying almost flat on her back, the shoulder nearest me only slightly lifted. Even in the gloom I could see that her eyes were open, staring at the ceiling.
‘Are you all right?’ I whispered.
For a moment she did not reply. Her eyes seemed to waver in my direction before looking upwards again. ‘Everything is perfect.’
The words did not sound like an answer to my query; more like a statement she was testing to see how it sounded out loud. ‘I wish I could keep my mind still. It’s an incredible, wonderful organ, the human brain…but it likes to overwork. Even when there’s nothing to be done, when no amount of thinking can have any immediate effect on a situation, the brain just won’t let go. It keeps turning things over, repeating scenes, rewriting them, anticipating, regretting…’
‘You’re thinking about that conversation with Ian. You shouldn’t.’
‘You think I don’t know that?’ she muttered helplessly. ‘I’ll ring him tomorrow and I’m sure everything will be all right…but it’s as if I can’t just let it go until then. I have to keep fretting, as if somehow I’m obliged to.’
‘Well, that’s how it works. You can’t turn things on and off at will.’
‘Emotions, perhaps not. But thoughts…thoughts should be controllable. If one could fix one’s mind on something neutral…’
‘Some kind of meditation, you mean?’
Her head moved on the pillow, signalling assent. ‘I’ve learned three different methods. But at the moment I’m too rattled to try any of them. Or…no, it’s not even that. I don’t want to try them. Somehow this mental merry-go-round, painful as it, is more congenial to me than the peace of meditation.’
‘Or it could be,’ I suggested softly, ‘that having someone else in your bed makes it difficult to concentrate.’
She gave a little hiss of laughter. ‘Could be, I suppose.’ She turned her face towards me. ‘What do you really feel for Caro? Can you tell me? Dig deep – what do you actually feel?’
The question surprised me, but it was a kind of relief. As long as we were talking openly and seriously about Caro, I felt less like I was involved in some kind of betrayal. ‘I…want to know her better. I want to spend time with her. She’s so full of…I don’t know, life. I feel about half her age sometimes.’
‘And…’ Barbara hesitated. ‘You don’t have to answer this…but physically?’
‘Oh. I haven’t thought about it too much.’ Actually, to my own surprise I realised this was true. She was pleasing to my eyes and I was more than ready to repeat our kiss, but I hadn’t let my thinking stray much further. I was quite happy with the way things were progressing. ‘Wh-why do you ask?’
‘I feel very strange,’ she murmured. ‘I don’t know whether you can believe this, but I’ve never gone to sleep with a man beside me.’
‘What? But surely you’re not…’ I caught myself as I realised me surprise was making me too bold.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Not quite. But it’s been a long time. In the TARDIS Ian and I, we…well, it was difficult to be sure how the Doctor felt about such things, and we decided to err on the side of courtesy. It was his ship, after all. Not that we ever discussed it, really – it was kind of unspoken agreement. And when we got back, it was…with all the shock of adjustment, so many things to take care of, I don’t think we gave it a moment’s thought.’ Her head twitched. ‘No. No, actually that’s not quite true. It was my fault, I think. Something of my father in me – or perhaps his ghost. Knowing he was dead, it seemed somehow more important not to disappoint him. I don’t know if you can understand that. I decided we had to wait. Immediate marriage was out of the question, with our legal status being so dubious, and then…then the disagreements started. We were parted without ever having….really come together.’
Not for the first time that night, I found myself without anything to say.
‘I’m…a bit out of step with the sixties,’ she went on. ‘I know that. Hard as I might try, it was always going to be difficult to escape my father’s influence. I suppose it first came home to me in college. Not that I was so unusual there – we’re talking about the late fifties, after all – but for the first time I came across people with a rather different view of life. There was one in particular…’
She fell silent and I felt she was waiting for something from me, some kind of encouragement, or at least acknowledgement. ‘A man?’
‘Only a boy, really – but he seemed like a man to me. He had a ferocious intelligence and he was dogmatically atheist. His views were the perfect contrast to my father’s ideas, and it all seemed impossibly attractive to me – freedom from that threatening God and all the rules He had laid down. But I found, much as I thought I adored Nigel, there were some rules I wasn’t ready to break.’ I watched her mouth quiver in the half-light, as if she was testing the next few words out to see if she could say them. ‘I still remember it so clearly. He shoved me away from him, quite hard – I fell across the bed in his digs. He pulled open the door with a violent movement, then paused in the threshold.
‘ "There was a Saint Barbara in the fourth century, you know," he said. "She was a virgin martyr." I can still hear the emphasis he put on those last two words. And with that he slammed out and left me alone to cry. I couldn’t understand why he was so angry. I didn’t know much about men, I suppose… er, not that I’m saying all men are like that.’ She looked towards me and I felt abruptly guilty, for reasons I could not pinpoint.
She resumed her study of the ceiling. ‘I don’t know why I told you that. That moment was burning inside me for so long…and it had repercussions later, when I thought I was in love again. That was a very different relationship. John was altogether a far nicer person than Nigel, but I couldn’t help remembering, and…and I was so terrified of losing him that I…’ She stopped.
‘You gave in to his demands?’
‘He didn’t make any demands. I…well, I – there’s no other way to put it, I made a present of myself to him. I thought it was what he would want.’ There was a second of silence. ‘And of course afterwards everything was different. I wasn’t the person he’d taken me for…or so he thought. Nothing I could say would alter what we’d done. We carried on, but he…it was as if he no longer entirely trusted me. I suppose he thought I must be throwing myself at every man who passed. After we split up I lost myself in my work for a long time. I found a kind of strength in that, and after a while, I was even happy again. Then…the Doctor happened.’
‘Yes. That was odd. He came to Coal Hill after I did, but I envied him the way he fitted in so easily, made friends with everyone. I did sometimes wish he would take a little more notice of me, but it was a very vague sort of longing…I couldn’t say I was really interested in him.’
‘So why did you ask him to go with you – at the beginning of it all, when you were investigating Susan’s home life?’
I could just make out a broad smile on her face. ‘He was so thoroughly "dependable". Exactly the sort of young man my mother would have loved to see me bring home. I knew I could trust him…and perhaps there was an element of trying to give the two of us something in common, something to talk about. After all, the Susan business could have turned out to be nothing out of the ordinary.’
‘And…when it didn’t?’
Her reply was a few seconds in coming. ‘I told you that at the beginning Ian was my only link with home, with the person I thought I was. For that reason alone he was very precious to me. Before we became friends with the Doctor and Susan, we were cast into a strange and mostly hostile universe with only each other to depend on. But…but…’ Her head shifted. ‘I don’t know, perhaps it was too obvious. Perhaps I disliked having Ian presented to me as my only option. Perhaps we both resisted that element of it. Or it could have been that our life was so uncertain that we couldn’t make any commitment to a future, couldn’t afford to think about that…’
‘I would have thought the constant danger would lead you to take every opportunity for happiness or comfort.’
‘Yes. Well…we did become very close. That was inevitable. And as I said, it was on both our minds...the possibility of something more. The time never seemed right, I suppose. Perhaps a part of us was waiting for the return home, thinking that real security might be just around the corner…’
I let the silence fall between us for about half a minute. ‘It must be…incredibly lonely for you – and for him – you not seeing each other.’
‘Sometimes.’ She lifted a hand from beneath the covers, brushing at her hair where it had fallen across her forehead. ‘I think…I think that was why he called me tonight. I had promised to ring him…but I’m still not ready.’
I remembered the very first conversation I had overheard – Sally urging her to phone him. ‘Yeah… you said something needs to happen. Any idea what?’
‘If I knew, perhaps I could do something about it.’ Suddenly she turned, shifting up on one elbow. ‘Look…this is my problem. I’m sure you have better things to do than listen to me go on about it into the small hours.’
I looked at her, trying to concentrate on her face and ignore the straying shoulder-strap of her night-dress. ‘I’m happy to listen for as long as you want to talk.’
‘Careful,’ she smiled. ‘You wouldn’t want to acquire a reputation for kindness.’
‘I won’t if you don’t tell.’
She rested her head on her hand and continued to watch me. I found it slightly unnerving, but I had no desire to look away. Everything we had said to each other during the evening was replaying itself in my head, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that something had to happen. But what? I had no idea what was simmering behind her fond smile.
Her free hand came from beneath the covers. It rested on the pillow between us for a second; then she used it to hitch the covers up around her shoulders a little. It returned to the pillow.
Her face was barely eight inches away from mine. I had the strangest impression she was falling towards me, although I knew she was not moving. I felt completely powerless, unable to control my limbs. I wondered if I should try to turn over, break the moment. I had the feeling my body would not obey me.
Her fingers drifted onto the shoulder of my shirt. I could feel the lightest of pressures there, but even that faint touch brought a reaction. I was glad our bodies were not in contact lower down.
Her eyes dropped to watch her hand, as if it was an object for which she had no responsibility. Her fingers stretched to touch my collar. I became aware I was holding my breath, and let it out slowly. Her fingers brushed the side of my neck and came to rest against my cheek – her knuckles against my skin as if she was testing the temperature of it.
Was she expecting me to stop her? What was she doing, anyway? I felt as if most of my body apart from my face had ceased to exist; I knew I could do nothing to interrupt her.
Her hand lifted and her forefinger traced the line of my upper lip, the other fingers barely perceptible against my chin. Then she pressed her hand firmly against my other cheek, turning my head.
Now she was looking into my eyes.
She lifted her head from her hand and leaned forward. Her head turned slightly; she lowered her lips onto mine.
I had never imagined a kiss so gentle. And still my limbs refused to respond. I let my mouth move with hers; tender, exploratory.
She drew back a little way. ‘I’m sorry, was that stupid…?’
‘Whatever it was,’ I croaked, ‘don’t apologise for it.’
Her head drooped a little, then she looked up again. ‘I…I meant what I said. We shouldn’t…we can’t…not just because of Ian and Caro, it wouldn’t work…But I had to do that. Don’t ask me why. Can I ask you for something?’
‘If…it’s in my power.’
She lowered her head so that her forehead rested against my temple. Her soft breath was warm against my cheek. ‘Could you…do you think you could put your arms around me? Say if it’s not something you’d feel comfortable with…I don’t want to—’
‘Whatever you say, Miss.’
I wormed one arm beneath her; my limbs had returned to life. She brought her head down into the hollow of my shoulder. Gingerly, I closed my arms around her. She was pressing against me now and I wondered if she had become aware of the effect she was having. I had been holding my breath again and when I let it out it was with a shudder. The smooth, fine material of her night-dress shifted under my fingers, making me aware of the flesh beneath. One of her calves lay across mine.
Despite the rain, her hair still smelt clean and there was a hint of that subtle perfume. I closed my eyes and tried to relax. This was not going to make dropping off to sleep any easier.
‘Are you all right?’ she whispered.
‘Never better,’ I managed to reply.
Past the mass of her hair I could see her naked shoulder. Knowing that this might be it, the only moment, the temptation was too much. I brought one of my hands up and very carefully let my fingertips trace the curve of her skin. She made a small sound and her head shifted a little.
‘We really should try to sleep now,’ she murmured against my collar bone.
‘You can sleep. I’m not going to miss a moment of this.’
She laughed softly. And in fact, in only a few minutes I was so relaxed that I must have gone to sleep just after I realised that she had.