1940s Britain and a waking Doctor has lost memory in this short story 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.