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

The Doctor sat alone at a table that was laid for four. He knew the others wouldn’t be there, but he had sat there anyway. He had ordered food for himself, the very lightest dishes. He had no appetite for anything more.

Not when he had to keep coming here again and again.

He remembered the pleasant evenings they had enjoyed before it all went wrong. This little restaurant had been a pleasant discovery on their very first evening of what was meant to be a week in the lovely French riviera town of Menton. They had chosen to come in the early 1970s, when the scars of war and occupation had faded but before the seafront had been ruined by modern, identikit hotels. The food was good and the service friendly and efficient. They had come every night sampling different items on the menu until, on what was meant to be the last night, when they each had their favourite dishes.

“This has been great,” Jackie said as they lingered over coffee. “I almost wish we didn’t have to go home.”

“The kids would miss us,” Rose pointed out. “And Susan is going to need us soon with the baby due.”

“We can’t leave Vicki and Sukie to their own devices for long,” Christopher said. “Those two are going to be asking for bonds of betrothal any day soon.”

“Oh, it’s not possible,” Rose protested. “I can’t be the mother of an engaged daughter. Next minute I’ll be mother of the bride – and then I’ll be a granny. I’m no way old enough for that. I think I should stay here in denial.”

The Doctor laughed and looked at his wife indulgently. She certainly didn’t look old enough to be mother of the bride in the near future. But there was going to be no holding Vicki back. She and Sukie had decided their own destinies long ago.

They had talked contentedly like that as the sun set over the Mediterranean and the sky darkened slowly.

Then, in an instant, everything was changed. It looked like ball lightning in the sky just above the restaurant’s outside seating garden. At the same time the air shimmered and thickened like invisible fog and was full of unusual colours.

And when it was over, The Doctor was sitting alone. His wife, his son, his mother-in-law who was also his daughter-in-law because his life was infinitely complicated, were gone.

The table was set for four people and it was daylight outside.

Time had slipped. That much was obvious.

But it was more than that. Time was entirely out of joint. He could feel it, pulling at him like a sore tooth.

He looked around the restaurant. Nobody else was aware of anything amiss. Why would they be? Only he knew it had happened.

Only he was missing the three people dearest to him.

He stood up and walked out of the restaurant. It wasn’t as if he had incurred a bill, yet. He walked slowly out of the garden with its crop of parasols where many people were still enjoying the sunshine and down the sea-front road. A quarter mile walk brought him to the beach villa they had been staying in.

The TARDIS was parked in the orange grove beside the villa. He unlocked it and stepped inside, aware at once of an insistent beeping from the console.

It could have been worse. A serious temporal hysteresis would have set the cloister bell booming. It wasn’t anywhere near that bad.

A few minutes at the console assured him that there was no alien menace, no invasion. There had been a rare natural phenomenon – a localised temporal storm. The restaurant had been the eye of the storm.

It was possible that the presence of two Time Lords in that location had focused it, like a lightning rod. It was almost certainly why his family were the only people affected by it. Even Rose and Jackie, human as they were, had soaked up enough vortex energy to be caught up and separated from him in time.

He went back to the restaurant. It seemed the logical thing to do. He noticed that the time had reset again in the hour he had been away. He sat at the table for four, by the window, overlooking the garden and the beautiful blue Mediterranean beyond. He ordered a pot of coffee and told the maître-d that his friends would be joining him soon.

But they didn’t.

Which was not to say that he didn’t find them. He sat and watched time reset four times, and on three of those occasions he saw Rose, Christopher and Jackie come into the restaurant.

But then again, he didn’t.

They weren’t themselves.

They didn’t know him, not even his son, which hurt the most.

They didn’t behave like themselves.

He watched them three times as the small part of the world around him reset in an inexorable pattern. As a Time Lord, he could calmly note the effects the strange time shift had created. As a man, as a husband, as a father, it was painful to see. His only comfort was that he had carefully worked out a way to bring his family out of their temporal prisons.

Rose was the first, and he was glad. It really had been awful watching the woman he loved, or at least the face and form of her, behaving in such an appalling way.

She didn’t actually come into the restaurant itself. She lurched drunkenly into the garden and sat under one of the parasols where she began shouting loudly for a waiter.

The waiters ignored her, as well they might, and she began swearing in a manner that shocked The Doctor the first time he witnessed it. He had no doubt that Rose KNEW those sort of words but she had never used them even in the worst situations he had inadvertently brought her into.

It wasn’t his wife, mother of five of his children, behaving that way. She was merely a flesh and blood avatar, trapped in a horribly limited role that she was playing again and again. The role of a drunken English tourist who, eventually, was taken away in handcuffs to face a court appearance the next day.

But no more.

The Doctor moved from his table and went outside. He sat beside Rose, who was startled into silence for as moment before resuming her demand to the ‘garkon’.

“If you do that again, I’m going to slap you,” The Doctor said to her.

“You what?” she responded. “Who do you bloody well think you are?”

“I'm a friend” he answered. “I’m here to help you.”

“Yeah? Then help me get a bloody drink from the garkon!”

“I will if you stop calling him ‘garkon’.”

“Why? Isn’t that what you call a barman in France?”

“For a start, it is garçon, with a soft ‘c’. but, in any case, look at the maître-d. How old do you think he is?”

“About fifty, I suppose.” She shrugged as if it was nothing to her.

“So, even if it is the ‘correct’ way to address him, it is a bit insulting, really, isn’t it?”

“I suppose.” Another shrug.

“Besides, think about it. He’s fifty now. When he was young enough to be called garçon, this part of France was first invaded by the Italians and then the Germans. They treated the local people with utter contempt even when they weren’t being violent and murderous. He had enough of being called ‘boy’ by rude people. Do you think he might deserve a little more courtesy now?”

She thought about it, at least, and this time didn’t shrug when she said, “I suppose.”

“So, what do I say to attract the man’s attention?” she asked.

The Doctor didn’t answer. He raised a hand and called out ‘monsieur’ in a polite tone. The maître-d approached the table.

“The mademoiselle has drunk a rather large pre-dinner cocktail without realising how much alcohol it contained. She is feeling a little unwell. Would you please bring her a large tomato juice with ice and just a dash of pepper sauce.”

“D’accord,” the maître-d answered. “And for yourself?”

“I don’t drink without food, so I will have a large iced lime cordial for the present,” The Doctor answered.

The maître-d went to fetch the order. Rose looked at him, then at The Doctor.

“Tomato juice?”

“It is better than black coffee for the effects of alcohol. You’ll feel better in a little while.”

She wasn’t convinced, but she put a hesitant trust in him for now.

The drink came presently and she sipped it slowly, coughing a little at the pepper sauce. After a while, she began speaking easier, without slurring her words, and with less swearing.

“Where did you manage to get so drunk this early in the evening, anyway?” The Doctor asked.

“I was… at a party – on one of the big yachts at the marina. The drink was free. I wasn’t thinking straight, and the bloke I was with had wandering hands… with everyone else but me. I decided to go. But… this was as far as I got. It’s miles back to the hotel and I don’t even have taxi fare. He drove me there in his show off Porsche.”

“I hope he doesn’t plan to drive it drunk, later,” The Doctor noted. “I really don’t approve of drunk driving.”

“I don’t care if he drives into the sea,” Rose answered. “The creep.”

“Well, that sounds like karma. Did you eat at this party?”

Just a fewv canapes. Not much.”

“Then when your stomach has absorbed the tomato juice, I’ll buy you dinner. We’ll stick with soft drinks, and you’ll sober up a bit more.”

“Why would you do that?” Rose looked at him suspiciously. “I'm not… .i’m not… easy. I mean… what would you expect for buying dinner?”

“A sober young woman who can talk intelligently,” he answered. “And later, I’ll get you safely to your hotel. No strings attached whatsoever. On my oath as… as a well brought up northerner.”

She laughed at that and relaxed a little. The Doctor gave it a few more minutes then looked at the menu briefly. He knew it well enough, now. He attracted the maître-d again and ordered omelette aux truffes as the entrée.

“Truffes?” Rose queried. “That’s… a sort of mushroom, isn’t it?”

“It is. And omelette speaks for itself. In Britain you probably think of omelette as a lunch or tea on its own. But in French and Belgian cuisine it is a lighter recipe, suitable for a starter. If you’ve ever read any Hercule Poirot he often enjoys an omelette before his main course.”

“I’ve never read them,” she answered. “I've seen the Orient Express film. That’s not much help. I can't remember what they ate.”

That was the Avatar’s recollection, The Doctor noted. HIS Rose had read Murder on the Orient Express actually travelling on the train, and Death on the Nile on a river cruise, Murder in Mesopotamia while visiting the Nineveh dig near modern Mosul and Appointment with Death while visiting Petra. She had enjoyed reading them in the places they were set even if she found the latter two books tedious.

“Take it from me, you’ll like it,” The Doctor assured her about the food. “A French chef makes his omeletes light and fluffy, and they are served quickly, while still hot, but perfect to eat even in the warmth of a Mediterranean summer.

And the chef didn’t disappoint. Rose ate hungrily. She obviously hadn’t eaten much so far this day. The Doctor ate more slowly, watching her carefully and thinking. The whole backstory of having been on an unsuccessful date with a Porsche owner was unexpected. It seemed as if the time phenomenon had filled in a blank sheet. He wondered it went deeper. Did she remember coming to France with Porsche man? But he was worried about pushing too far. It might scare her. It might well hurt her mind so much that he would never get his Rose back again.

He ordered a relatively simple main course, but for desert, he chose crêpes. HIS Rose loved watching them being made on a portable hotplate by the table, culminating with the lighting of the brandy before serving.

And so did this less sophisticated woman who had wondered about ‘pancakes’ for desert but trusted his judgement, which he had fervently hoped to achieve.

Coffee followed, by which time she was quite sober and not at all worried when The Doctor suggested a walk on the beach as the sun started to set.

She trusted him fully now. Part of it was Power of Suggestion. That stopped her panicking about being alone with a man she had only just met in this version of herself. Nevertheless, The Doctor hoped some of it was the real Rose’s belief in him coming through.

“Was it really bad here during the war?” she asked as they walked.

“Those mountains over there are the Pyrenees,” The Doctor said, pointing to the spectacular range in the middle distance. “They separate France from Italy. The Italian Army were bottle-necked at a pass near here and the French fought hard to keep them out to begin with. Then their government surrendered. The Italians occupied this area. Other parts of the Riviera were under the Vichy regime. That was a puppet French government under the Germans. After the Italians surrendered the Germans came in to maintain the border. Both bullied the local people when it suited them. They took the best food and rationed the rest. Women were abused. Anyone who didn't fit could be arrested and transported to work camps and worse. There were brave people who resisted, but the Gestapo would retaliate by taking innocent people from the towns and villages and executing them. Living in fear of such cruelty, not knowing when it might end, if ever, was hard on everyone.”

“We did the war in history,” Rose said. “Mostly the Bitz and how London got through it. We never really considered the war for people in the invaded countries. And… now… it’s all sunshine and holidays… as if it never happened.”

“It certainly DID happen and memories are still raw for those who experienced it. There are some memorials to those who fought that the tourists generally pay no attention to.”

“I think I’d like to try paying attention,” Rose said. “It doesn’t feel right to be partying and sunbathing and not noticing things like that.”

The Doctor nodded and said nothing. During their week they HAD visited the remains of the sentry post where a few French soldiers had held off the invading Italians until the shameful surrender orders and the general war memorial in the town centre, away from the tourist beaches and hotels.

“Yes…” Rose said slowly. “I remember… by the road… the rocky cliffs where they could get up high above the Italians and pin them down. You explained it….”

She paused and suddenly clung to The Doctor, sobbing quietly.

“I’ve got such a headache. Doctor… can we go back to the villa? I'm tired.”

“We’re nearly there,” he answered. He had brought her along the beach behind the orange grove. It was only a few more steps to the French windows that opened into the lounge.

He put her on one of the comfortable sofas. She laid her head on a cushion and closed her eyes. She murmured something about omelettes.

“What about them?” he asked.

“My mum is rubbish at them. They stick to the pan or come out too oily.”

“Yes, but your mum never has to cook an omelette in her life again. We have a cook, remember!”

Rose laughed and snuggled further into the cushion. The Doctor put his hand gently on her forehead and induced a sleep that would last until he was back with her mum and Christopher.

He returned to the restaurant, feeling far more confident about what he was going to do for Christopher and Jackie.

Which was just as well because Christopher was a very distressing case. The Doctor had seen the result of his avatar’s story too many times already. This was going to be the last, and it was going to be different this time.

It had to be.

Christopher took a table for two by the window. He ordered a pot of coffee for two.

But nobody came to drink from the other cup.

The Doctor sat opposite him. Christopher looked at him in surprise and some mild antagonism.

“I don’t want company,” he said. “Leave me alone.”

“Yes, you do. You ordered coffee for two.”

“But not for you. I’m waiting for… I’m expecting… She’ll be here….”

“No, she won’t,” The Doctor told him. “You and I both know she won’t, and I am so very sorry.”

He reached for the pot and poured coffee, adding cream and sugar as Christopher liked it without needing to ask. He pushed the cup towards him. Christopher reached for it and sipped without thinking for a whole ten seconds.

“Who are you?” he asked. “I feel as if I should know you. But…”

“Have you heard of an organisation called The Samaritans?” The Doctor asked.

“Yes….” Christopher answered cautiously.

“I'm not with them. they don’t have the resources to do personal interventions. But I’m here for the same reason.”

Too many times, as the trapped time recycled around, he had watched, along with a horrified restaurant staff and customers, as the well-dressed but clearly unbalanced man took a gun from his pocket, pressed it against his own head, and fired.

Nobody needed to see that again, not least his father.

“I’ve lost them both,” Christopher said, as a complete non-sequitur, but explaining something about his state of mind.

“Both?” The Doctor queried as delicately as he could manage.

“My first wife… she died… in an accident. I spent a long time thinking I should have died, too. The loneliness, the memories. People telling me I should try to pick up my life… people telling me it wasn’t too late to meet somebody….”

“People should think before they speak,” The Doctor observed. Christopher was crying, now. The Doctor was not the sort of person who was shocked by another man crying. He was sorry that his son had cause to do so, even if he wasn’t himself.

More stoic Time Lords would note that Christopher, like his father, being half human, COULD cry, setting them both apart from pure-blood Gallifreyans. But that hadn’t mattered for a long time, now.

The Doctor let him cry for as long as he needed. Then he gave him one of the table serviettes to wipe his eyes.

“Then… then I DID meet someone. She was different in every way to my first wife, and that was just what I needed. We were both happy. So very happy. I stopped pinching myself every morning, believing it was a dream. I began to believe I really was happy.”

The Doctor understood. He was sure Christopher had felt like that when he met Jackie. Some of this WAS really him, he was sure.

“But… I lost her, too. I lost her… and my life doesn’t matter any more. Its all over.”

“How did you lose her?” The Doctor asked. “What happened?”

“I… She… I ….” Christopher was puzzled. He began again, but the memory dissolved again.

“I don’t know. I don’t know how or when it happened. But she’s gone. I’m on my own again and this time I can't start over.”

He reached to his pocket and pulled the gun out, but to The Doctor’s relief he laid it on the table by his coffee cup.

“Just give me one good reason not to do it,” he said.

“Because I love you, and I lost you once already and don’t want to lose you again,” The Doctor wished he could say.

“Because she might NOT be gone for good,” The Doctor said. “There is always hope in any situation. I lost somebody, once. For a very long time I had no reason to hope, but I was wrong. And… you are, too, if you don't have hope.”

Christopher – or his avatar – thought about that for about half a minute.

Half a minute was enough for The Doctor. With reflexes that had, on more than one occasion allowed him to dodge bullets he snatched the gun, slipped on the safety and pushed it into his back pocket. Christopher didn’t notice straight away. When he did, his expression began angry, then resigned, then a half smile of something like relief. Taking away the immediate means of suicide was half the job done whether it was grabbing the gun, knife, syringe, or pulling the person back over the parapet.

“I could try again, later,” he pointed out.

“You could. That is always an option,” The Doctor admitted. “But I don’t think you will. Despite having found a gun in a country other than America, I think this is a spur of the moment thing. I think , even if you still feel miserable later, you will be over the immediate desperation.”

“And if I’m not?”

“You will be.”

He was saying that more in hope than certainty, he had to admit to himself. He hoped he could get Christopher to walk out of the restaurant, away from the baleful influence that hung over it, and everything would be all right, just as it had been with Rose.

He was depending on it.

At least he had stopped crying. That was a start. He was relatively calm.

The Doctor wanted to probe that loss that Christopher couldn’t remember, but he was worried what might come out if he pushed to far.

He poured more coffee for them both and said nothing. The lack of conversation stretched for a minute, five minutes, ten. The maître-d asked if they wanted more coffee, but neither of them did. Whatever the mood, there was a limit to how much coffee anyone could drink – even Time Lords.

“If I suggested a walk on the beach, and promised it wasn’t a romantic proposition, would you promise not to try to drown yourself?” The Doctor asked. “Only it is a bit selfish of us taking up a table and not buying anything.”

Christopher agreed. The Doctor paid for the coffee and they stepped out into a balmy Mediterranean dusk. They easily reached the beach and walked side by side, again without talking, for a quarter of a mile or so.

Then, as they came close to the orange grove by the rented villa Christopher stopped walking. He took a lomg, deep breath that turned into a sigh.

“Father!” he exclaimed, turning to The Doctor with a confused expression. “What has happened?”

The Doctor almost burst into tears. He hadn’t been so glad to be called ‘father’ in a long time.

“It’s a long story.”

“We’re Time Lords,” Christopher reminded him.

They stopped on the sea edge of the orange grove where there was an ornamental seat facing the darkening horizon. The Doctor explained what had happened to the only other person on this planet who could understand.

“Jackie is still trapped in the hysteresis?” he asked. “That explains the deep hollow feeling I have right now….”

“It does. But don’t worry. I’m going right back for her, now.”

“Let me do it,” Chrisrtiopher said. “She’s… my wife… my responsibility.”

“There’s a danger you might be sucked in again,” The Doctor pointed out.

“There’s no reason why you weren’t in the first place. Being a Time Lord wasn’t total proof against it, after all. Let me try, at least.”

“I’ll give you two hours then come and get you.”

“Fair enough,” Christopher conceded. He stood and looked around, then set off back along the beach.

He was slightly surprised to step into late afternoon daylight when he reached the restaurant garden, even though his father had explained what was happening. He took a seat inside by the window and ordered a lime juice with ice. He found himself unable to contemplate coffee yet.

He saw Jackie come into the restaurant. She was dressed well, though he thought the fashion of the early nineteen seventies wasn’t quite ‘her’. She sat and picked up the menu and seemed to be studying it as any customer would.

After a little while, though, Christophe noticed that she was crying. Her dark 1970s mascara was running, spoiling her face.

He stood and moved towards her.

“May I help you, madam?” he asked offering a handkerchief, a silk one with his initials on that she had bought on a shopping trip with the other women of the family. She took it but looked at him a little suspiciously.

“Do I look like a madam?” she asked.

“Not in the ‘profession’,” he assured her. “But ‘mademoiselle’ would be patronising to any adult woman. It really just means ‘little woman’ in translation.”

He took a seat opposite her and repeated his offer of help.

“Translation is the trouble,” she said. “I wanted to just… just order a meal for myself. But… I should have realised it was all in French. All I can see is… stuff… and then ‘avec’. Everything is ‘avec’… avec, acec, avec…what… what is ‘avec’?

Christophe resisted a smile. There was a book that wouldn’t be published for at least another forty years in which ‘avec’ was a running joke, but Jackie, at this point in time, was genuinely distressed.

She couldn’t read French. This version of her didn’t have the TARDIS’s translation gift. Christopher noted that, carefully.

“it is nothing to worry about,” he assured her. “It simply means ‘with’. It lists the accompaniment to the main menu item.”

“I don’t suppose they have something like fish avec chips, then, that I would recognise on the menu and on the plate.”

“Poisson avec pomme frits,” Christopher said. “I'm afraid it isn’t on this menu. The fish courses are rather more elaborate, grilled ‘avec’ various sauces.”

“How about a nice steak and kidney pudding? I could go with that – with or without ‘avec’.”

This time she WAS joking, and Christopher smiled indulgently. That was more like his Jackie.

“In this warm climate you really wouldn’t like it,” he told her. “Rich suet pastry would settle uncomfortably on you. But… if you really want kidneys, they do them braised with a peppercorn sauce and button mushrooms ‘avec’ seasonal vegetables.”

He showed her where it was in the main courses. It still meant nothing to het on paper.

“That sounds ok. But how do I order it when I can't even pronounce it.”

“Go to the restroom and fix your make up and I will order for two – with a light white wine, I think?”

“You’re inviting yourself to dine with me?” She smiled as she said it and got up, bringing her handbag as she turned towards the toilets with their international symbols needing no translation.

When she returned the wine had been brougbht, along with a light entrée of pate serves on a bed of salad. The correct fork for eating it was by the plate, saving her another point of embarrassment.

“I’ve eaten pate from the supermarket,” she said. “But like a spread in a sandwich. Never thought of it on a salad. Foreigners have style, don’t they?”

“Every nation has a ‘style’,” Christopher said to forestall her awkwardness when she realized that she had referred to the local people as ‘foreigners’. “I know several very good restaurants in London you would enjoy.”

“I… probably would enjoy them with somebody like you,” she answered, trying not to blush at sounding so forward. “I mean… on my own… truth be told… even in English I think I’d be scared of a menu like that. I’m… hopeless. I’m… I wasn’t brought up to eat at restauramrs. Poison avec pommes frits from the takeaway was a treat.”

That was close enough to the truth, of course. He recalled several early dates with Jsckjie in which she took his word on what to eat, what wine to order with it. She had gained her confidence after a while. This cruel trick had thrown her right back.

“Do you go to a lot of restaurants in London?” Jackie asked.

“Usually in the West End before the theatre,” he answered. It was something he and jackie often did.

“I’ve never been to a West End theatre,” Jackie admitted. “I suppose I could now. I can afford it. But I never have. No good reason… I just never have. Daft, really. I could get up to town any time. I suppose… it’s like the restaurant… I feel a bit… uncertain.”

Yes, that had been the old Jackie,” Christopher noted. She had been all right with Les Miserables and Cats, but she had been nervous of the Mousetrap, and even more so with Shakespeare at the Globe, even though it had taken her all of two minutes to laugh at A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They had even seen several operas and she had enjoyed them. But it had taken a gentle introduction.

He had fallen in love with the unsophisticated Jackie of the Powell Estate. This avatar reminded him of her in bitter-sweet ways. But he really wanted the ‘finished’ Jackie back – the Jackie who knew and loved him and was mother to his two children.

He needed her back.

This Jackie appreciated his choice of main meal, and the Poires Belle Helene avec sorbet he chose for dessert – a whole lightly cooked pear with cinnamon and chocolate sauce and peach sorbet. By that time Christopher felt he could risk another coffee. The time it took to drink it leisurely was enough to let Jackie says yes when he suggested a walk on the beach.

They didn’t talk much except about how nice the warm, salty sea breeze was. Nothing needed saying.

As they came close to the orange grove, Christopher was startled to see his father land a heavy right hook on the chin of a tall, slender and distinctly alien figure who fell backwards like a felled tree.

“Doctor…..” It was Jackie who called out in surprise at his action. Christopher was too stunned, first to see his father acting that way, and then because he realised Jackie had recognsied him and been equally shocked.

“Who is that?” he asked as the figure picked himself up and ran away towards the sea. “Why did you….”

“I shouldn’t have,” The Doctor admitted. “He DID try to apologise. The hysteresis was his fault. He’s a Tyrannian student … using time travel to get around on his ‘gap year’. Illegal, unauthorised time travel and a barely qualified driver caused all of the upset we’ve been through. I… just felt like….”

“Like I felt when I decked you all those years ago,” Jackie said with a laugh, “I’m not sure what just happened… but it feels like it’s all right, now.”

“I’m pretty sure it is,” The Doctor said as he saw Rose approaching, looking a bit sleepy and puzzled, but absolutely fit and well and knowing who everyone was.

Which was the most important thing.