Seated around the oval table were five people...
Seated around the oval table were five people...
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?'
'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.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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