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

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake's edge or pool

Delight men's eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

Brenda Campbell looked at her sister in law with something like awe. Carya had only read that poem for the first time a few days ago and she had recited it perfectly. It must be coming from the oral tradition of her Cielo tribe, Brenda reflected, knowing that she had no claim to superiority even though she came from a more ‘sophisticated’ society. Four years at school in Coniston and she couldn’t remember more than the first stanza of that wretched Daffodil poem.

Carya looked out over the very lake the poem was about, at, possibly the descendants of the same swans. She wasn’t sure there were as many as fifty-nine of them.

“Twenty-six,” Davie told her. “I counted.”

He counted them in one quick glance across the lake. Brenda was used to that sort of thing from him… a brain faster than a computer. Probably working in binary.

“Plus, eight cygnets under that overhanging tree, there,” Chris added, not to be outdone.

“You can count them?” Carya asked. “Without seeing them?”

“I can sense them,” Chris answered. “Their simple, gentle lives, like soft lights in the air….”

“Well, even if the swans fall a little short of legend, they’re still beautiful. This whole place is beautiful.”

“You were born and raised next to a much more spectacular lake than this,” Davie told his wife. “A crystal clear water filled caldera with its sister volcano reflected in it. I’m not even sure this isn’t a man-made lake to give the estate a more natural appearance.”

“I know. Yet, this place does feel so very peaceful and lovely. And the swans are special. We have no water birds anywhere near as big on Tibora. Not even on lakes like ours. They are magnificent.”

“We have large birds on my world,” Carya said. “But they are grey and brown and… well, they are mostly killed for winter food by our hunting parties. These birds… they seem to exist only for humans to admire and write poetry about.”

“Well,” Chris answered her. “I’m sure they evolved as a species before humans built lakes in their gardens and kept them for their aesthetic value. But… yes, I think you have it more or less right. They exist only to be beautiful.”

It was in his mind to add something on the lines of ‘just like you’, but even across time and space he could sense what his sister, Sukie, would say about such a blatantly soppy and chauvinistic notion.

“They remind me why I like Earth more than any other planet I’ve visited,” Davie admitted, and that was quite a sentimental remark for him, and a surprising one considering how many worlds he had visited.

“Ahhh…” Brenda looked around and nodded imperceptibly. There was a figure approaching them. They modified their conversation to sound more like young socialites of the late nineteen-twenties who all came from planet Earth.

Lady Augusta Gregory was in her mid-seventies and history would record her death nay a few years from this peaceful summer, but right now she resembled a dreadnought in human form, moving at full steam across the lawn towards them. She looked and dressed rather like the typical images of the widowed Queen Victoria, though taller and less morbidly obese. She smiled broadly at the four young people who were guests at her home, the famous Coole Park in County Galway, in what was then called the Irish Free State,

“Carya was just reciting “Wild Swans at Coole,” Chris said to her. “Very beautifully, too.”

Lady Gregory looked at Carya, her dusky skin and black hair a contrast to the white chenille dress she was wearing. Her brow wrinkled. She knew she had been told which exotic part of the world the young woman came from, but she couldn’t quite recall it now.

She wasn’t sure, come to think of it, where any of these charming young people came from or when she had invited them to a weekend at her country home, but she was glad she had. Young people brightened her days.

“It’s a very lovely poem,” Carya said. “But sad. Why is that? It’s about beautiful swans and this lovely lake, but it is sad.”

“It is very perceptive of you to realise that,” Lady Gregory answered her. “Most people see only the beauty of nature in the text. But… yes, it is about loss, about grief at things that cannot be undone. Mr Yeats wrote it in 1917. Perhaps you are too young to realise…. This was a very sad country in those years. War abroad and insurrection at home. There was grievous loss in every heart. My own son died….”

“I am so sorry,” everyone said. It was what you had to say at times like this.

“I do not understand war,” Carya added before she could stop herself. “There is no such thing where I come from.”

“Wherever that is, it must be a blessed place,” Lady Gregory said feelingly. “Do not look so sorrowful, my dear. None of it was your fault. Come, let us walk back to the house, the long way around, enjoying the scented air and the warm sky above us.”

They did so, gladly. The talk was of poetry and plays. That was the purpose of the visit to this time and place. Chris, in his efforts to teach Carya about Earth culture had taken her to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin to see the best of a rich literary genre that he had always found much more approachable than Shakespeare and Milton and other giants of English literature. After her introduction to the Irish literary movement in the early part of the twenty-first century when the plays of the late nineteenth century movement were having a revival, he and his brother had decided on a time trip, not to meet the poets and playwrights themselves, but the lady whose money and passion, as well as a country house thrown open as a retreat for literary talent had moulded the genre.

“Have you yet seen the autograph tree?” Lady Gregory asked as she brought them into one of the formal walled gardens near the House. They hadn’t on this particular visit, but they had seen it in the twenty-first century when the park was run by the Public Works department of the Irish Civil Service. They had viewed the initials carved into the carefully preserved old beech and the plaque next to it that identified who the literary giants were who had once passed their time in vandalising a tree.

Brenda had known about half of the names. Carya knew only William Butler Yeats because she had read some of his poetry, and Sean O’Casey because two of his plays had been performed back to back at the Abbey one afternoon.

In any case, there was a huge difference between knowing the name of a poet and hearing somebody who knew the man intimately talk in glowing, if nostalgic, tones about him.

“O’Casey is my youngest,” Lady Gregory said with the pride of a horse breeder or dog fancier about the literary men whose minds she had nurtured. “And perhaps the most exciting. He wasn’t from the educated classes like the rest. He grew up in poverty, barely even able to read until very late in his childhood. But when he put pen to paper a raw and natural genius blossomed. Not right away, of course. His first effort was no good. But he persisted with our encouragement. I’m so glad he came out here to us, to enjoy the countryside and be around other writers. Perhaps he never wholly felt at home here in our splendour… but I’m glad he came.”

She fell silent again, lost in reverie until they walked around to a summer house with one or two cracked windows but a roof that still kept off the rain. The cushioned seats inside had probably been embroidered a century ago, but they were still good.

“It was here in the Summer House that the idea of the Abbey Theatre was born,” the lady announced. “We sat here as we always did and talked of our efforts, especially of the work of Yeats and Douglas Hyde, to restore the ancient spiritual beauty of the Irish legend. Yeats had written a play, and Edward Martin had written one, and I said ‘We’ll have to organise a theatre to get them produced.’ Well, the theatre was organised then and there, and the first rehearsal took place, as many more to come would take place, right here in the garden.’”

“The theatre didn’t even exist then?” Brenda asked. The building where they had seen the very plays the lady spoke of dated from the 1960s. The one where O’Casey had finally triumphed over class divisions had burnt down in 1951.

“I don’t mean the brick and stone of the building,” Lady Gregory added. “That was just a matter of securing the lease on a suitable property. I mean the heart and soul of the theatre.”

“I understand,” Chris said. “You had a vision and set out to make it real.”

Davie smiled at that remark. Of course Chris understood. He and his brother had both had their visions. Chris had his Sanctuaries, one on Earth and the other on SangClune, where he taught the psychically gifted to be even more gifted. He, himself, had his experiments with solar power that were changing the world he lived in and, of course, his cars. They both knew about visions. But none of it could have happened without money. The same was true, here. Lady Gregory, a widow with a huge income and nothing else to spend it on, could make anything she wanted happen, and without her money the Irish Literary Movement would never have lifted itself off the ground.

Perhaps he was being a little too cynical. It had needed a lot of hard work and determination to create a genre of literature and drama that scarcely existed before those poets and writers and well-meaning society ladies got together to talk about it. It DID need imagination and creativity to make it happen too.

They came, by and by, to the late eighteenth century mansion. They entered through French widows into the library where comfortable chairs were arranged around a fireplace, though on this warm summer evening a brass firescreen with an embossed ship covered the empty hearth. The library was richly lined with bookshelves and portraits, many of them of the writers and artists of the Irish literary movement, painted by their artistic contemporaries.

They all sat. Lady Gregory rang for tea and it was brought by three maids who carried silver tiers of cakes and sandwiches.

“We dine late on summer evenings, so a high tea at five is welcome,” she said. Nobody argued. They had young appetites and enjoyed the food as well as Lady Gregory’s reminiscences which came without too much prompting.

“I remember the evening when Synge read Riders to the Sea,” the grand lady said, looking into the firescreen and perhaps imagining a darker, colder evening with logs cut in the woods beyond the garden blazing away. “It was a stormy night, with the lake beaten into spray, with rain lashing against the panes. Yeats was here, and, I think, Æ. Hyde, of course. There might have been more. Since the day I first met Synge, wandering amongst the peasants on the Aran Islands and resented his intrusion as much as he resented mine, we had become great friends. Largely through the influence of Yeats he was turning aside from the rather imitative style of his Paris days and was writing of the islanders. On this night, he sat by the fire, bent over, frowning, and read as was his custom, without expression. The room grew instantly still. For the entire twenty minutes we scarcely breathed. When he finished we could not speak. He sat bowed down in his chair, forgetting us. And we sat forgetting everything except Ireland and the sea, and the sadness of Human life.”

As the lady spoke, the room was transformed. Brenda and Carya looked about them at a dark, stormy evening, the room lit by gas lamps and peopled by men they had seen pictures of on the covers of poetry books and the programmes from the theatre – Yeats, John Millington Synge, that eclectic man who insisted that everyone called him Æ, though he was born George Russell, Douglas Hyde, playwright and poet and in fullness of time the first President of the Irish Republic. Lady Gregory looked around at those ghosts of a different evening and smiled at them.

“Yes, great days,” she sighed. “You would all have loved those times, when we were all much more carefree than now.”

“I have always liked the Irish writers,” Brenda admitted. “If only because they weren’t Wordsworth.”

Carya was still catching up on literature. It was other aspects of Lady Gregory’s reminiscences that touched her.

“Human life isn’t sad,” she said, picking up on the last part of the reminiscence.

“Well, not always,” Lady Gregory agreed. “Not for one as young as you are. For me….”

She trailed off, her eyes turning to the past again and finding some of it dark and sorrowful.

“I’m afraid I’m not much of a poetry reader,” Davie admitted in the awkward silence that followed. “Though as an engineer I do appreciate how Mr Yeats so colourfully summed up the third law of thermodynamics.” He grinned as everyone looked at him curiously. “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Lady Gregory laughed softly.

“From his Second Coming. I shall have to tell him what you said. He will be amused.”

“I hope he will be,” Davie answered politely.

“I would like to meet him, I think,” Carya said. “I do like his poetry.”

“I am sure he would be glad to hear you say that,” Lady Gregory answered her. “It is quite marvellous to think that the poetry and plays we thought of as being merely for our own country, for the enrichment of Irish culture, has been read as far away as… as….”

Again, Lady Gregory tried to recall which country Carya came from, a place untouched by war, possibly in North Africa or the Middle East.

Not that it mattered. The simplicity of the girl, untouched by lessons in literary criticism and going straight to the root of what she heard was refreshing. For that matter, too many of the discussions around this fireplace had been so highbrow and esoteric that even she lost track from time to time. Small wonder O’Casey had sat so quietly in the corner taking so little notice of what they were all saying. It must have seemed like so much nonsense to him.

But he had enjoyed being with them, and she thought young Carya was enjoying her weekend, too. She liked the poetry and had no need to see any high meanings in the words. As for the young man who had connected poetry with engineering…. That was perhaps the deepest understanding, yet.

She talked a little more of those long distant days before the sadness, when Yeats had resurrected Irish folklore and legend and put it on stage, when Synge had looked and listened to the ordinary people of the Gaelic regions and written plays about the things that concerned them in their unsophisticated communities. Her audience listened with genuine interest and enthusiasm, not merely politeness, until it was time to change for dinner.

It was still warm even as the sun was dropping over the lake. The French doors were left open in the dining room and the sounds of nature were better than music to accompany the meal. The young people talked happily and the mistress of the house enjoyed their company as much as any of the great men who had sat at this table with her.

Afterwards, they sat in the library again with glasses of wine and the same bright conversation.

“I… think I shall take a little walk outside before bedtime,” Lady Gregory said after a while. She looked at Chris. “Young man, would you walk with me. These days the dusk is not so easy on my eyes.”

Chris stood at once, more than happy to do a small duty for her. They passed out of the door onto the terrace and into the formal gardens.

“She is a sad lady,” Carya said after a while. “And… I think it is the four of us making her sad. I don’t know why….”

“Because we remind her of earlier days… when her son was alive and her daughters lived here with her,” Davie answered. “I’ve felt it all day. She tries not to let it get to her. She tells herself that having us around is lovely, but we are a stab in her heart, too.”

“That’s terrible,” Brenda said. “Can’t we do anything to help?”

“Turn back time?” Davie suggested with a wry smile. “Even Time Lords can’t do that.”

“How did her son die?” Carya asked. “Was it… terrible?”

“Yes,” Brenda said. “He was a pilot… in the war she talked about. The plane crashed.”

Carya looked about to burst into tears. Instead, Davie burst into poetry.

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate,

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,

No likely end could bring them loss

Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” he explained. “Yeats wrote it in memory of Robert Gregory. Granddad taught it to me and Chris when we were learning to fly a TARDIS. I think he saw some kind of message in it… fly carefully, at least.”

“I wonder what SHE thinks about having nothing but a poem to remember her son by,” Brenda asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” Davie answered. “Maybe I should be a bit less reckless on race circuits before MY mother finds out the hard way. But… I wonder….”

He closed his eyes. Both of the women knew he was reaching out telepathically to his brother. Neither moved or spoke. This wasn’t a time to ask questions.

Chris walked to the rose garden with Lady Gregory, then he stopped and let her walk on alone. He put his strength into the psychic effort along with his brother. What they were doing was something they probably wouldn’t be allowed to do if the old Time Lords and their strict Laws with a capital ‘L’ still existed. It was, at the very least, a trivial use of their Time Lord power.

But it worked. Lady Gregory gasped softly and walked towards the figure that literally materialised out of thin air. He was a little older than Chris and wore a ‘Biggles’ style moustache that made him look even older. He walked towards Lady Gregory and they embraced.

“How is it possible?” she asked. “You… you don’t feel like a ghost. Besides… I tried so often… séances… mediums. It never worked before.”

“I don’t know, mother,” Major William Robert Gregory answered. “I think it’s a sort of miracle. We shouldn’t question it. Besides, I don’t have much time. Just long enough to….”

Chris didn’t listen to any more. He slipped quietly back to the library.

“You look exhausted,” Carya said to him as he dropped into an easy chair.

“So does Davie,” Brenda noted. “What did you both do?”

Chris asked first for a glass of milk. Brenda rang for a maid who brought a jugful. Then he explained.

“You brought the ghost of her dead son to see her?” Brenda was astonished.

“You can do that?” Carya asked.

“Not often. It really took it out of me…. Out of both of us. Still draining our energy, now. We can give them about fifteen minutes more…. I hope it is enough.”

Davie was suffering the most when they finally had to let the ghost of Robert Gregory return to wherever he belonged in death. He was near fainting and only just pulled himself together by the time Lady Gregory stepped back through the French doors.

“You’ve been crying,” Carya said. She ran to the suddenly vulnerable lady and gripped her hand. “I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to make you cry.”

“Tears of joy, my dears,” she assured them all. “I don’t know how you did it…. I just know it WAS one or more of you. Nobody else ever came to my lonely house and made it so much less lonely. As for… out there… There aren’t words enough…”

She sank into a chair beside the fireplace. Carya stayed by her side. Brenda joined her, too. For a long while nobody said anything at all.

‘Thank you, all of you,” Lady Gregory said again. There really was nothing more to be said.

After a little while Lady Gregory asked Brenda to ring for her maid to bring her to bed. The butler came in at the same time to close the window and draw the curtains.

“We’ll be going to bed, too, soon,” Davie said to the man. “We won’t need any more assistance from staff. You may retire when you are ready.”

By rights, that was for the lady of the house to decide, but Davie had a command in even his quietest tone, something born of his Time Lord heritage, that kings and emperors took notice of. A mere butler was not going to argue.

“Very good, sir,” he answered and quietly withdrew.

“’Did we do any real good, though?” Brenda asked when they were alone. “She is still going to die in a few years.”

“Knowing for certain that she will be reunited with her son,” Chris said. “We gave her that surety.”

Brenda came from a race that worshipped the Time Lords of Gallifrey as gods. Carya’s people worshipped the sky. Chris and Davie had been taught to respect other people’s religions, but they had no particular faith of their own. They weren’t entirely sure where the spirit of Robert Gregory had come from, even though they had called him. Perhaps it was from somewhere that might be called Heaven.

But it didn’t matter what they believed. Lady Gregory believed it.

“I really didn’t intend to do things like that,” Davie admitted. “I just wanted to hear her stories about the founding of the Irish Literary Movement and to see this house in its true glory before it was demolished in a rush of short-sighted modernist thinking in the nineteen sixties. But when we got here, I could feel there was something that needed to be done. Now we have… tomorrow we can just enjoy the stories and the poetry again. Even me. I DO know more than the one about thermodynamics.”

I meditate upon a swallow's flight,

Upon a aged woman and her house,

A sycamore and lime-tree lost in night

Although that western cloud is luminous,

Great works constructed there in nature's spite

For scholars and for poets after us,

Thoughts long knitted into a single thought,

A dance-like glory that those walls begot.

There Hyde before he had beaten into prose

That noble blade the Muses buckled on,

There one that ruffled in a manly pose

For all his timid heart, there that slow man,

That meditative man, John Synge, and those

Impetuous men, Shawe-Taylor and Hugh Lane,

Found pride established in humility,

A scene well Set and excellent company.

They came like swallows and like swallows went,

And yet a woman's powerful character

Could keep a Swallow to its first intent;

And half a dozen in formation there,

That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,

Found certainty upon the dreaming air,

The intellectual sweetness of those lines

That cut through time or cross it withershins.

Here, traveller, scholar, poet, take your stand

When all those rooms and passages are gone,

When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound

And saplings root among the broken stone,

And dedicate - eyes bent upon the ground,

Back turned upon the brightness of the sun

And all the sensuality of the shade -

A moment's memory to that laurelled head.