Unfinished Business, Doctor Who, Dr. Who, Chris Eccleston, Christopher Eccleston, Doctor who Fiction

Of all the planets The Doctor had brought her to, Marie was ready to vote this one the most peculiar she had seen.

The planet itself was orange-red except for two small ice caps at the poles and, from low orbit, some rivers that wound through the desert landscape. According to The Doctor about a quarter of a million indigenous people lived a nomadic life centred around oases that only they properly knew about.

But he hadn’t brought her to visit the desert. Instead, the TARDIS was currently taking a scenic and winding journey through a series of floating islands far above the planet’s sandy surface. Each of these, at around twenty acres of surface area, were green, fertile, private paradises for wealthy retirees from the prosperous Human colonies of the galaxies. Each of the islands had an impressive castle or stately home and beautifully laid formal gardens complete with fountains and water features and green lawns for croquet or tennis. One slightly larger island was an eighteen-hole golf course with members’ clubhouse.

Marie agreed with her fellow Dubliner, Oscar Wilde, that golf was a good walk spoiled, and she deliberately didn’t ask how they avoided the biggest sand trap in the universe when a ball went over the abrupt edge of the island. The Doctor chose, without such prompting, to explain that there were safety shields all around the perimeters of the islands and talked at length about the eco-friendly solar energy systems that the islands used to stay in the air as well as providing power for everything else. This was all contained within the white rock foundations hanging beneath the well-maintained estates of the surface like well-brushed teeth.

Marie thought she would prefer to think of it as magic, but she was too old for that. It had to be solar energy and gravity cushions.

“It’s no big deal,” she commented. “There was something like this in Flash Gordon. All the dominions paying tribute to Ming were lumps of land floating above Mongo.”

“Excellent soundtrack, but lousy science,” The Doctor observed. “Besides, this is real.”

“I know,” Marie assured him. “I was just winding you up. This is truly spectacular. So which one of these stately piles does your old pal live in?”

“That one,” The Doctor answered, pointing to an island supporting a building that took ‘Scottish Baronial’ and married it to ‘Gothic’. Even Balmoral would bow to its superior if superfluous pointy-roofed towers and crenelated walls were the height of building fashion. For Marie, ‘Pointy-roofed’ was the best description of what she was looking at. Her degree was in English literature. She may have heard of terms like ‘crow-stepped gables’, but she didn’t know she was looking at an impressive array of them along the south-facing aspect and didn’t much care.

“Gormenghast without the budget,” she remarked, proving that her literature degree was well-earned, at least. “What’s your friend’s name?”

“Lord Coinneach McCaimbeulach,” The Doctor said with perfect Scots pronunciation. Marie repeated it with Irish inflections that were just a little different.

“You realise that translates to Kenneth Campbell,” she pointed out. “I’ll just bet it says that on his birth certificate. I once dated a bloke who called himself Proinseas Mac Gabhann, and made a big fuss about it being pronounced right and talked incessantly about our Gaelic Heritage. But on his driving licence it just said Frank Smith.”

The Doctor smiled.

“Don’t you care about your Gaelic heritage, Maíre Aoibheann Caireann Mhíc Ranaille?”

“Yes, but if I called myself that every time I met anyone they’d get bored and walk away before I was done. And when did I tell YOU my full name?”

The Doctor’s smile widened but he didn’t elaborate. He turned his attention to guiding the TARDIS over the deciduous trees that ringed the property, disguising the sudden drop off into thin air. Beautifully laid formal gardens lay beyond before they landed neatly on the driveway in front of the house. He took Marie’s arm as they walked up to the wide set of steps in front of the huge oak door. It opened when they were halfway up and The Doctor gave their names to a butler whose facial expression defined the adjective ‘dour’.

They were shown through a hallway with a long staircase that turned halfway and disappeared into unknown floors to a drawing room-cum-library full of bookshelves, low tables with globes on them and a sideboard with an impressive set of crystal decanters on view. The butler poured a single malt for The Doctor and a dry gin and orange for Marie then left with the news that his Lordship would be with them soon.

“How did he know about the drinks?” Marie asked. “I know gin and orange isn’t exactly country house sophistication, but it is my favourite.”

“Psychic butler,” The Doctor replied. “This is the fifty-sixth century. A butler who knows what you want without being asked is de rigour in aristocratic houses.”

“Ok,” Marie accepted. She sipped the drink slowly. She didn’t have much of a head for alcohol and she didn’t want to get lightheaded.

Presently, a sturdy but clearly old man with a trim beard and moustache flecked with grey entered the drawing room. He was dressed in tweeds that went with the Scottish Baronial. He might have been sporting a shotgun while the servants dealt with a brace of grouse that he had ‘bagged’.

A young woman came in with him. She was casual in slacks and a blouse and smiled warmly at Marie as The Doctor and Lord McCaimbeulach greeted each other in a thick Scottish dialect that might as well have been a whole new language.

“I’m Cairistiona,” she said. “Or just Chrissie, if we’re going to be friends.”

“Marie, and why not. Are you his lordships….”

She paused a little awkwardly. Chrissie was about her age. She could be a daughter, but she could just as easily be a young trophy wife.

“Granddaughter,” she confirmed. “My parents died when I was five. I’ve lived with granddad ever since. And you….”

She glanced at The Doctor and now Marie felt a bit awkward. The Doctor looked about his late-fifties, old enough by Human standards to be her dad.

“We’re… just friends. The Doctor is showing me interesting bits of the universe.”

“Interesting!” Chris laughed ironically. “This is the dullest place in Creation.”

“It looks fascinating” Marie said. “Living on an island in the sky, kept afloat by gravity engines. I would love it.”

“But there’s nothing to DO,” Chrissie protested. “Nothing but grandfather’s friends visiting for endless chess games, or the golf club. There are hardly any people of our age. All these ridiculously big houses are occupied by retired people, at most a couple, usually just one person, and their staff. When I was little, nobody minded if I played with the cook’s children, but now it’s different. I’m more or less engaged to the grandson of Lord Lazenby who owns a mock-Tudor house with its own deer park. And that’s because the honourable Anthony Lazenby is the only man under forty in the quadrant – not counting servants.”

“More or less engaged?”

“He’s more boring than grandfather’s friends. He’s fat and dull-headed and so short-sighted the deer are in no danger of being shot by him except by accident. I don’t want to marry him, really. But enough about me. Tell me EVERYTHING about you.”

Marie didn’t think there was much to tell, but two things fascinated Chrissie. First, she lived on Earth, which was clearly as fascinating as Las Vegas to a girl brought up in such stultifying boredom as she described. Secondly, she had a job. Chrissie was entranced by the idea of work, other than as a servant, and the idea that a young woman could support herself by that work and not have to get married to ensure her future.

“I might get married,” Marie pointed out. “If I meet somebody. I don’t know what my future holds.”

“You are lucky,” Chrissie told her. “I know too well what mine holds, and it is even more BORING than it is now.”

Marie sympathised. She thought she could see very well how dull Chrissie’s life was. Luxurious, to be sure, but dull. The poor girl was a living embodiment of every Jane Austen heroine combined with most of the characters from the Bronte novels, and there was no prospect of any sort of bold, handsome hero turning up to sweep her off her feet.

She had a little second hand excitement, at least, talking to Marie right up until it was time to dress for dinner. This, apparently, was de rigueur every night even if it were just Chrissie and her grandfather dining. With guests, it was imperative. Marie hadn’t brought an evening dress. Of course, she could have gone to the TARDIS, which the chauffer and gardener between them had hauled off to the garage, but Chrissie declared that she had plenty of dresses that would fit her new found friend and they rushed upstairs to try on clothes – an occupation few women objected to.

When they came down stairs an hour later, Marie was surprised to see that The Doctor was in evening attire, too. He seemed to be surprisingly comfortable with the customs of aristocratic life. Well, except for the one where he ought to have complimented her on the stunning dress she was wearing. Then again, he never did things like that. She had long ago concluded that he considered women’s fashions as mere wallpaper in the grand scheme of life.

He knew all the other rules of etiquette like which fork to use of the half dozen set out at each of the four places at the table fully capable of seating twenty-five people. Silver and crystal glass shone as more than a dozen courses were brought on fine bone china by liveried servants. Wine was tasted by his Lordship before pouring. It was a veritable banquet.

“This fish is delicious,” Marie commented about the bright red fillet that tasted a lot like the fresh salmon that the best Dublin restaurants did creative things with. She liked salmon and when she had reason to eat out in the city she would invariably choose a dish containing it. She was thus culturally qualified to comment on this fish from another world light years from the Temple Bar.

“Red Sulk,” his Lordship told her. “The natives catch them in the rivers below. We have a regular order.”

“Oh, so you do have contact with the indigenous people?” Marie said in a spirit of Inquiry. His Lordship shrugged.

“The cook does. I’ve never seen one of the Sandhoppers. Never want to. I hear tell they’re the colour of this fish and completely spineless. Not sure if that means they’re cowards or invertebrates. Makes no odds to me.”

That was Lord McCaimbeulach’s final word on the subject of the native population of the planet below. He started an entirely different conversation with The Doctor, one that women were not expected to have an opinion about. Chrissie talked to Marie about female subjects – fashion, mostly.

When they reached that part of dinner where the ladies withdrew and the men smoked cigars and drank brandy, Chrissie had a lot more to say. First she summoned the butler who prepared cocktails, then she sat on the sofa next to Marie in a conspiratorial way.

“Grandfather doesn’t know, but I’ve been down to the planet lots of times. I go with cook when she visits the markets. Nearly everything we eat is imported, but fish and fruit are plentiful down there. The people are wonderful. That thing about them being spineless – it’s just nonsense, and they’re not red like the fish, just a dark olive colour. They all have beautifully expressive brown eyes and some of the men are amazingly handsome.”

“Why did your grandfather say all that stuff then?” Marie asked, noting that Chrissie’s own eyes were bright when she mentioned the men.

“He’s never seen them. He’s never been to the surface. Hardly anyone has. Why would they? Rich people retiring to their own customised homes. What do they care as long as the supplies of single malt arrive every month from Earth? But I find it fascinating down there, and… I’ve been talking to lots of the natives, telling them that they ought to stand up for themselves and not let the sky-dwellers exploit them.”

“Are they exploited?” Marie asked.

“Absolutely they are,” Chrissie answered. “That fish we ate should have cost five hundred credits. Cook probably paid a quarter credit. It’s the same with everything. If they were paid properly, they wouldn’t have to live in tents. They could have houses, running water, schools. They don’t even know how to read or write.”

“But they’re not actually banned from learning to read?” Marie asked. “Maybe they don’t need it. They could have an oral tradition.”

“Maybe, but, honestly, It’s disgraceful how they live while we have every luxury.”

Marie wasn’t sure of that. Even watching anthropological documentaries from her sofa she had seen plenty of tribes in far flung parts of Earth who considered their lived fulfilling without mansions full of fine furniture or even mobile phones. Since joining The Doctor she had met people whose lives were enviably free from the stress of the consumerism her society called prosperity.

“Anyway, don’t tell your Doctor, but I’m going down there tomorrow, before dawn. Do you want to come with me and see for yourself? Grandfather thinks I’m going out to breakfast at the club and a day’s golfing with Anthony. He won’t know a thing.”

“Sounds good to me,” Marie answered.

“Good. Make out you’re really tired soon after the men come in. Get a good sleep. I’ll wake you in plenty of time.”

She did as Chrissie suggested, yawning loudly and talking about jet lag until The Doctor was convinced that she needed sleep. Her co-conspirator immediately offered to go up with her. The Doctor and Lord McCaimbeulach bid them goodnight and turned to an obsidian and gold backgammon set on the side table to amuse themselves for the evening.

Marie slept comfortably in a luxurious, queen sized bed with silk hangings all around. It seemed like no time before she was being shook awake in the dark of a pre-dawn. She rose drowsily and dressed in the dim light before following Chrissie down the main stairs, then a narrower kitchen stairway and out into a yard behind the house where the vehicle used by the cook to go to the market was parked. It looked a bit like a nineteen-eighties Formula One car but with room for a passenger and shopping. It started quietly, being powered by solar batteries, and rose vertically to pass over the back wall. Marie was fine about that, but wondered how she would feel about dropping down over the edge of the island towards the planet.

It was actually a rather wonderful experience, because the sun was just rising over this part of the planet as they passed over the trees at the edge and began their descent. Marie thought she had never seen anything so lovely as a sunrise from low orbit over a planet that was mostly desert. By the time she remembered that she ought to be terrified of the experience they were not much higher than an ordinary aeroplane, except going at a fantastic speed that brought them halfway around the planet before they slowed and descended gently towards a landing place just outside one of the populated oases. They had been flying towards the sun and the day was fully begun here while everyone was still in bed in the geo-synchronous orbit of Lord McCaimbeulach’s castle in the air.

Marie had imagined a small lake with trees growing around its edge and a tribe of nomads pitching their tents and watering their equivalent of a camel. In fact, the lake rivalled any of the ubiquitous lakes of Killarney, and though there were tents, and something VERY much like a camel as the main beasts of burden, this was something of a permanent settlement. The tents were large and made of brightly coloured fabrics. On the edge of the community were homes where children were playing and women washing clothes outdoors. Further in was an artisan district where men were firing up small forges and kilns to make tools and pottery and women wove silk in the sunshine. Small fishing boats were out on the lake, and a market was already getting to the state of business which the words ‘bustling’ described. Some of the goods for sale were simply laid out on a rug on the ground, others upon wooden trestle tables with canvas roofs to keep the hot sun of the day off the produce. The smells of spices and cooked foodstuffs filled the air, the colours of fine silks, the glint of coloured glass bottles, the earthy colours of hand thrown clay amphora assailed the eyes and the ears were filled with the sounds of commerce in a place where haggling was the usual way of doing business.

And all before breakfast. Chrissie steered Marie through the market to a quiet place with a cool breeze from the lake and shade provided not only by a grove of olive trees but by a wide canvas stretched across long poles. Beneath it wooden tables and stools were set up and a man worked at a stone-built oven and a hot plate over a charcoal fire making something that smelt interesting.

They were served coffee in a style Marie would call Turkish and a bowl of char-grilled meat pieces with green olives and raisins in a piquant sauce. It looked more like something bought at a late night curry house than for breakfast, but it was tasty, eaten with a flat barley bread brushed with olive oil.

As they were finishing their meal a young man approached the table. He was tall, good-looking in a Mediterranean kind of way, and dressed in the native style of loose linen pants and an even looser blouson style shirt open at the neck with a belt at the waist. His hair was dark and twisted into a topknot wound around with a piece of fabric and his eyes were a deep brown.

Chrissie leapt up from her seat and ran to embrace the man. They kissed unashamedly. Marie guessed that this was not the honourable Anthony Lazenby and he had never spent a day on a golf course.

She found herself not at all surprised at Chrissie’s secret lover. Her description of life as the young heiress to the McCaimbeulach estate almost demanded some kind of clandestine escape, if only for the length of a shopping trip. She watched as the couple came to the table and Chrissie introduced her sweetheart as Joel. The young man sat and ordered more coffee and Chrissie explained that she had been seeing him in secret for many months.

“Well, why didn’t you say that was what you were doing?” Marie asked.

“I didn’t know if you would keep my secret,” Chrissie answered. “Grandfather expected me to take you golfing with me. If I’d gone off without you the game would be up. I had to get you to come with me and fill you in when we got here.”

“So all that stuff about showing me exploited people was just to get me to come in secret? They’re not exploited at all, are they? This place is not stuffed with luxury like the mansions up there, but its ok. It’s even, in some ways, a really good life, free of the burdens that give men like your grandfather ulcers. And you know that, of course. You really like it here… though maybe Joel has a lot to do with that. I can see how he makes this place look very enticing.”

“I knew you would understand,” Chrissie said with a wide smile.

“I understand, but you really SHOULD have trusted me.”

Of course, she couldn’t. Marie could see that, really. She sipped her coffee and watched the glances passed between Chrissie and Joel. One thing was obvious.

“I’m a real spare wheel here, aren’t I?” she said. Chrissie and Joel both looked blank. A spare wheel was a concept unknown to either of them. “I mean… you don’t really want me hanging about. I’d really love to have a proper look around the market. I might even buy some things. I don’t have to worry about declaring anything to customs, after all. So, you two go and do what you need to do and we’ll meet back here at tea time.”

“Marie, you’re a REAL friend,” Chrissie declared. She hugged her fondly then grasped Joel’s hand. Marie put down the coffee cup and picked up her shoulder bag. She had some money in it. She always had money to spend wherever The Doctor took her, and she had learnt to haggle in some of the strangest markets in three galaxies.

She thoroughly enjoyed doing just that. She bought a whole array of spices, some of them meant to flavour milky drinks for nights of sweet dreams, others to be burnt in pots to leave a pleasant scent in a room. She bought several ornamental pots for burning the aromatic spices and some with airtight lids to keep the flavoursome ones in. She haggled over several dress lengths of fabrics that she could never get hold of anywhere in Dublin and some costume jewellery to die for.

She tried out the food and drink at three different tents offering refreshments. Lingering over tall glasses of honey syllabub and fruit was a pleasant way to pass an hour between shopping forays.

Her hands were full with two hand crafted wicker baskets full of wrapped parcels when she found her way back to the café by the river. She ordered the popular afternoon drink that tasted like hot chocolate and mint and settled down to wait for Chrissie and Joel to return.

The Doctor knew that Chrissie and Marie were not golfing. Marie had left a note letting him know of her secret plans, in case anything went wrong. He put the note in his pocket and went to breakfast with Lord McCaimbeulach. Marie was a grown woman. He trusted her to enjoy one little bit of rebellion. He spent the day steering his friend away from the subject of his granddaughter.

Then he got a tearful phone call. He made what he hoped was a plausible excuse to Lord McCaimbeulach and set a course for the planet’s chief market town.

He found Marie miserably hugging a cup of mint-chocolate at a table near the lake. She burst into fresh tears and thrust another note at him, this one in Chrissie’s handwriting.

“She’s eloped with her secret boyfriend… a native of this world?”

Marie nodded unhappily.

“They’re going to his village… somewhere on the other side of the lake.”

“That’s vague,” The Doctor admitted. “I doubt we could find her if she doesn’t want to be found.”

“She has a phone. I tried calling it, but she doesn’t answer. She definitely doesn’t want to be found. How can I face her grandfather? He’ll think I helped her do it. But I didn’t. She used me.”

“What does Joel do for a living?” The Doctor asked.

“He’s a fisherman,” Marie answered. “He owns one of those boats with the white sails out on the lake.”

“A fisherman? Really? The Doctor smiled wryly. He glanced around at a stall situated downwind of the café where a local specialty, smoked fish was sold. He thought about the processes involved in transforming a freshly caught fish with slippery scales and all those bloody innards into the flattened, salted, smoked end product strung up in bunches looking like brown autumn leaves.

“Come on, drink your chocolate and then we’ll head back to the TARDIS.”

Marie drank up and then followed The Doctor. He noticed her shopping but didn’t offer to help with it. That wasn’t the sort of thing he did. She left the bags on a chair and went to the console at The Doctor’s bidding.

“When you were young and daft, did you ever have one of those rows with one of your parents that ended in you threatening to leave home and your parent replying with something like ‘a month fending for yourself and you’ll be crawling back!”

“Yes, something like that.:

“Me, too. Only I moved to the other side of the galaxy and lived in a Shaolin monastery for five years before I gave in and talked to my father again.”

As he chattered in his usual abstract way he was setting time co-ordinate.

“You might have managed a month on your own. But Chrissie has never even made her own bed in her life. I think a week will do it.”

“You mean….” The Doctor smiled and dematerialised the TARDIS. It groaned and heaved and then stopped quickly. Marie noted that the local date and time had changed only by seven days.

“Try that phone number again,” The Doctor said. Marie did. The conversation with Chrissie was short. A half hour later a bedraggled young woman who had gone a week without a hairstylist, facial or manicure stepped wearily into the TARDIS.

“It was horrible,” she complained. “I was expected to spend all day gutting fish. The smell made me gag. Joel was out on his boat all day and I was stuck with his mother and grandmother. They both smelt of fish. I smell of fish.”

“Did you actually get married?” The Doctor asked.

“No,” Chrissie admitted. “When I thought about all those fish, somehow it didn’t seem.... I told Joel how I felt, and he agreed it might be for the best if we didn’t….”

“Well, then, no harm done except to your nice fingernails. Marie will take you to the TARDIS bathroom and then to the wardrobe once you’ve got the fish smell sorted. I’ll treat you both to a slow orbit of the planet before we go back in time to the afternoon the elopement began. As long as you keep your hands in your pockets until you can book a manicure your grandfather won’t know a thing.”

Chrissie looked immensely relieved. Marie looked thankful.

“You must have been a dad once,” she said to The Doctor just before it was time to dress for dinner. “You knew if we’d gone after her and dragged her away from Joel she would have run off again. But a week going native without her hair dryer and she’d come to us.”

“Basic psychology,” he answered without being drawn on the subject of parenthood.

“She’s going to break it off with the Honourable Anthony,” Marie added. “She’s talking about going back to Earth and enrolling in a university. I suppose she might as well. Learning to make her own bed will be less of a culture shock than gutting fish and she won’t be eternally bored.”

“Then there’s hope for her, yet,” The Doctor agreed. “Just as well she didn’t actually go through any sort of marriage to Joel. Granted, I DO have a legal qualification among my many hidden talents and could have arranged a bone fide divorce, but hiding it from his Lordship would have been trickier.”

“Everyone’s happy,” Marie agreed. “Except for the cook. You do realise we left the car down on the planet.”

“Ah,” The Doctor responded. “Oh well, that’s a loose end to tie up, but not before dinner. I understand fish is on the menu again. I hope it won’t give Chrissie any bad memories.”