A Doctor Who short story by Elisabetta Vernier
‘Let’s see. Italy-Italy-Italy… Yes! Italy!’ the Doctor declared, fiddling with the levers and switches on the Tardis console. ‘Two thousand and… something.’
With a satisfied smile, he listened as the Tardis groaned her way through space-and-time to reach her destination. Then, lost in thought, he ran his hands over his battered velvet coat.
‘Time to retire, my old friend’ he muttered with affection, poking a finger through a hole in the fabric inside his right pocket.
Hopefully, he would be in Milan just in time for the beginning of the Winter Sales season.
It was an unusually warm winter, even for Italy, and the January sky was clear blue, with thin streaks of white. In Milan, however, nobody seemed to care. The city buzzed with its usual frenetic business activity, and enjoying a beautiful morning was considered a waste of time. And money.
In Palestro Park, no one noticed the blooming trees, just as no one noticed an odd blue cabin materialising beside a large oak tree by the duck pond.
‘Oh, my god!’ Elisa whispered to herself, stopping abruptly to stare wide eyed at the life-size Tardis prop someone had built in Palestro Park. ‘I totally love it!’
But what in hell was a Tardis prop doing there?
Maybe the BBC is doing some external shots for the new series! Maybe…
Whatever the reason, Elisa couldn’t help but stare. She had to have a picture of herself with that awesome looking Tardis. So she looked around, in search of someone she could trust with her mobile phone.
At last, she spotted a familiar face. Well, familiar wasn’t the right word. She felt she knew him, but couldn’t place him clearly. He was lean and tall, with short wavy black hair, soft blue eyes and a full mouth in a pale face.
He was wearing a dark coat, and had a long scarf around his neck. A striped scarf.
Ewwww… Where did he get that? She thought, cringing with aesthetic disgust.
But who was he? She knew she was terrible at recognizing people.
Was he a co-worker of hers? Nah. A TV journalist, maybe. No, not a chance.
‘Well, whatever’ she told herself, and joined him on the shore of the duck pond.
He was feeding the ducks with lazy gestures.
‘Hey’ she said. He turned to face her. His eyes were both kind and sharp.‘Could you please take a picture of me with that…’
The word Tardis stuck in her throat like a fish bone.
In her mind, a face and a name had suddenly clicked together. Paul McGann.
That was it! So the BBC was really filming something incognito! But why the Eighth Doctor and not Ten?
She realised she was still staring at him, caught in mid sentence, and blushed.
‘I’m so… so sorry, sir’ she stammered in English. ‘I didn’t mean to bother you, Mr McGann. I didn’t realise it was you. I’ll just be…’
The British actor looked slightly amused.
‘Excuse me, miss. What did you just call me?’ he inquired, very politely.
Oh, god. He was so British she could faint.
‘Mr McGann’ she repeated, in a small voice. ‘You are Paul McGann, the actor, right? I mean, the Eighth Doctor, you know…’
At that, the man looked deeply puzzled.
‘The Doctor?’ he asked, frowning. ‘You know about the Doctor?’
‘Of course I know the Doctor!’ she replied, feeling a little offended.
Ok, Doctor Who fans weren’t that many in Italy, but they knew their Doctors and companions, just like any other fan would. And she was a true fan.
The man gave her a concerned look.
‘Well, miss… What is your name?’
‘Well, Elisa. I’m afraid I’m not who you think I am’ he said, studying her.
‘Yeah, right’ she said, smiling. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell the press.’
He dropped the last breadcrumbs in the water.
‘I see you’re not easily convinced’ he said, crushing the small paper bag in his elegant hand. ‘Follow me, then. Shops open in ten minutes and I wouldn’t want to be late.’
She followed him without thinking. She’d be late for work, but she couldn’t care less.
She was going shopping with the Eighth Doctor!
At 9:00 o’clock, Via Montenapoleone was packed with tourists, queuing outside the flagship stores of the most famous Italian fashion brands.
It was a strange thing, fashion. The Doctor had changed his own personal tastes so many times, but he could hardly remember wearing anything else than his beloved velvet coat.
Actually, his beloved velvet coat, retired.
The dark grey coat he was wearing – something he had dug out of the Tardis wardrobe – had belonged to one of his previous selves: elegant, yes, but way too formal. He had been so bored by his own reflection he had grabbed his ancient coloured scarf, to add a touch of personality. The result was puzzling: he looked like some sort of overgrown version of Harry Potter. And apparently, he also looked like someone else, this Paul fellow Elisa had mistaken him for. An actor, she had said.
An actor playing the Doctor. Playing… me! he thought, both amused and offended by the idea of being the star of some TV show.
How did it happen? How come he had never noticed? And, above all, how much did these people really know about him and the Time Lords? He had spent quite some time on Earth, but this TV show matter was absolutely new to him. Could it be dangerous?
The young Italian woman he had met in the park was queuing with him in front of the Valentino shop, too embarrassed to start a conversation. She kept shifting her hazelnut eyes on and off of him, afraid to be caught staring. From time to time, her freckled face blushed slightly.
‘Tell me more about this actor who looks like me. He plays the Doctor, right?’ he asked, to ease her embarrassment. Besides, he was really curious about his fictional self.
Elisa stood silent for a moment, thinking.
‘Yes… and no’ she explained at last, looking uneasy. ‘Well, he used to. Not anymore. He regenerated.’
‘He-did-what?’ barked the Doctor, raising his voice a little more than he meant to.
The young woman went pale. She was probably beginning to realise he wasn’t him, after all, and that she was shopping with a total stranger.
‘The Doctor, he… he regenerated. Twice. He looks different now.’
‘Very different’ she said. ‘Tall skinny Scottish guy, with freckles. Funny hair. Big teeth.’
‘Teeth?’ he repeated, distractedly running his tongue over his own quite remarkable set of teeth. ‘But it’s impossible! It never happened. It’s all wrong!’
She frowned slightly.
‘Wrong? Why? Are you an Eccleston fan?’
One hour later, they had almost reached the top of the queue.
In the meantime, Elisa had updated the guy she stubbornly thought of as “Paul” about the last ten years of Doctor Who. She was puzzled by how little he seemed to know: she knew the actor hadn’t been much into the whole Who thing, but she wasn’t prepared for his abyssal ignorance.
He seemed oddly interested, though, and she liked that.
However, when he asked about the early days of series, she had to give up and admit her own ignorance. As a matter of fact, her knowledge about the Doctor started with the 1996 movie. First to Seventh Doctors were still a complete mystery to her.
No, wait. Seventh was the Bilbo-Baggins-looking guy, McCoy, the one who died in surgery.
‘So, who created the Doctor?’ he asked her again, with an intense look on his face. ‘When did it happen? Where?’
‘I’m really sorry, Paul’ she said, tasting the sound of his first name.‘Can’t help you with that. We could check on Wikipedia, if you like.’
‘Stop calling me that, please?’ he pleaded. ‘Call me John, if you have to. John Smith.’
She couldn’t resist his begging eyes. Besides, the Doctor’s alias fitted him well.
‘Sure’ she replied, with a smug smile. ‘So, what are you planning to buy, John?’ she asked, changing subject.
‘Buy?’ he asked, like he had just landed from another planet. Actors were strange people.
‘Oh, riiiiight! Shopping! Valentino!’ he remembered, at last.
‘Yes, that’s why we’ve been queuing here for the good part of an hour, I suppose’ Elisa said, hoping he wouldn’t change his mind. If she had to lose a day’s work, she wanted it to be for a good cause. Like helping Pau… – no, John – choose some superstylish new Valentino suit.
‘A business suit, maybe?’
John wrinkled his nose, faking disgust.
‘No thanks, not for me’ he replied. ‘I need a new coat. And I like velvet.’
‘Wait a minute. Did you just say velvet?’ she asked, with sincere surprise. ‘But I thought you hated the Eighth Doctor’s costume! You said it yourself, more than a couple of times, in interviews. You hated the costume, as much as you hated the wig!’
‘Wig?’ he pressed her, looking truly horrified now. ‘What wig?’
Then their turn came, and a beautiful waitress helped them inside.
The Doctor glanced at his own reflection.
The violet velvet coat suited him perfectly. Waist, shoulders, lapel: everything was absolutely wonderful.
‘Pleeeeeease!’ moaned Elisa, sitting on a small couch near the mirror. ‘You look like… Elton John! And old, as well.’
‘I am old’ he replied, with a tired smile.
‘Oh, stop it!’ she said, waving her hand at him. Then she rose and went straight for the waitress.
‘Mi scusi’ she addressed her in Italian, not knowing the Doctor could understand her just as well. ‘Could you please bring us something that doesn’t look so… old style? Forget velvet. Bring us something… leather. And bring a sweater. Cachemire. Make it dark green, V-neck.’
The Doctor listened, surprised by that outburst of creative thinking. Maybe he should trust her and see what happened. After all, he still had plenty of time to investigate the whereabouts – and whenabouts – of the man who created his fictional self.
When the waitress came back with an armful of clothes, Elisa welcomed her with a huge smile.
‘Try and see!’ she told him, then she left.
When she re-entered the small room, he was standing in front of the mirror, looking…
‘Fantastic!’ she cried, holding her fists against her cheeks. ‘Totally, absolutely fantastic!’
He turned to face her, looking amused.
‘Not bad’ he admitted. ‘Quite different from my usual style, but not bad at all.’
She made an “I told you so” face.
So much for the striped scarf and the violet velvet coat, she thought, chuckling. Now we’re talking!
‘Shall we go, now?’ he said, taking out his credit card. ‘Wikipedia calls!’
‘There, you see?’ Elisa said, pointing at the screen of her notebook PC. It was lunch time and her office was empty and silent. ‘Wikipedia says Doctor Who was created in 1963 by three guys at the BBC named Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber and Donald Wilson. The show went on from 1963 to 1989, for 26 seasons, then it was cancelled. It was brought back in 1996 by Philip Segal, for the American movie… That’s where you came in.’ She paused, blushing. ‘I mean, that’s when Paul came in.’
‘The actor who looks like me.’
‘Yep’ she answered, clicking on the actor’s name to bring up a photo. When it loaded, the Doctor felt like looking in a mirror. He and Paul could have been twin brothers. It was too much to be a coincidence. Something must have happened in the past. Someone must have seen him and his Tardis, first in the Sixties -as an older self – and then again in the early Nineties, in his present body.
‘1996, you said?’ he repeated, thoughtful. ‘Where? London?’
‘Let me check’ she replied, scrolling the webpage. ‘It says Segal tried to bring the show back around 1994. He was British but worked at Columbia Pictures, in the US. Hollywood, I’d guess.’
‘Hollywood, 1994’ mumbled the Doctor, trying to recall that period in Earth’s history. ‘Ah, yes! Schindler’s List won the Oscar for best movie, and the Lion King opened… What a year! I love the Lion King!’
‘Oh, me too!’ she replied, her face lighting up with excitement. But not for long.
All of a sudden, the Doctor stood up as if a bell had just rung in his mind.
‘Forgive me, but I’ve got to go now.’ He picked up his new jacket, ready to leave. ‘Business calls.’
‘Oh, I see.’ she replied, giving him a sad look. ‘Time to leave. Where to, if I may ask?’
‘Hollywood, 1994!’ he answered, with a mysterious smile. ‘Then, of course, London, 1963. Again.’
He took a step, then turned back and held out his hand to her.
‘How about some real space-time travelling with the Doctor in his new fantastic Valentino jacket?’
Elisa’s jaw hit the floor with a loud thump.
Some time later, the Tardis rematerialised under the oak tree in the park.
‘Here we are, back to where we came from’ the Doctor said, stepping out of his blue cabin.
‘Except for the fact that you erased Doctor Who from history!’ she complained, sulking. ‘It’s my favourite TV show, and now it’s like it never existed!’
‘It was never meant to exist. It’s for the best! Those guys at the BBC knew too much about me: it was dangerous. I had to do it. To protect me, but most of all, to protect you. You humans, I mean.’
‘I’ll be your n.1 fan, now’ she said, looking both happy and sad. ‘The only one, actually…’
‘Oh, come on! Why the sad face?’ he said, trying to cheer her up. ‘This world doesn’t know the Doctor, but you still do! And you’re not the only one. Who cares about a fictional hero, when you’ve seen the real thing?’
He flashed her one of his best, dashing grins.
‘C’mon, let’s take that picture and make sure you won’t forget about me’ he added, grabbing her hand and dragging her towards the Tardis. ‘Give me your mobile phone, quick!’
She took out her small phone from her purse, hesitated for a moment, then handed it to the Doctor.
He fidgeted on it with his sonic screwdriver and positioned it onto a bench, a few metres from the Tardis.
Then he ran back to her, wrapping quickly one arm around her shoulder.
‘Say cheeeese’ he teased her, then pressed a button on his screwdriver.
The camera phone, now remote-controlled, clicked softly, recording the scene for posterity.
Later that day, Elisa stared at the screen of her mobile phone.
The Doctor, in his Valentino jacket, looked dashing. He was gone, now, but he was real.
And she knew there were still a few fans out there, waiting for him to come back.
I’ll find them, Doctor. You bet I will.
She put down her phone and opened Google.