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

Susan was late getting out of school. Yet another teacher had held her back for ‘a little chat’ about her work. It had been difficult to explain why there were so many strange gaps in her understanding of English literature. No, she had never read Charles Dickens. She had seen him once, at a recitation in Leeds Town Hall, in 1865, but she had never read his work. It was just not something she had felt she needed to do. She intended to rectify that tonight. She knew she could find the electronic texts on the TARDIS database. Next time Mr Hallis asked a question about Oliver Twist she would know the answer.

But he had made her late. Her grandfather would ask questions. He would want to know why she was late, and she couldn’t say that it was anything to do with the school or he would be cross at her. He always thought her going to the school was a bad idea. This would only confirm his belief.

But if she said she had been delayed by anything on the way home he would be even more worried. He always told her to come straight back to the TARDIS at the end of the school day. He didn’t want her visiting cafes or record shops like the other girls.

He didn’t want her meeting boys – Human boys.

So she ran as fast as she could along the busy streets of Shoreditch. She was a fast runner. It helped that she didn’t get out of breath. she wasn’t actually breathing at one point, but recycling the oxygen in her lungs. She wasn’t blinking, either. But she was running too fast, with her gabardine coat slapping her ankles and her hood falling down behind her neck, for anyone to notice those things.

She didn’t notice the old woman who stepped out of an alleyway next to the old Gaumont cinema until it was too late. She ran into her and both went sprawling on the floor.

“I’m… terribly sorry,” she apologised quickly, reaching to help the woman to her feet. “I really am. I….”

“You were careless, like all young people,” the woman snapped, glaring at her in a thoroughly unpleasant manner.

“I said I was sorry,” Susan pointed out. “I really am. But I’m late. My grandfather will be worried.”

“You’re all alike, children, rushing around thoughtlessly. You should find out what it is to be old.”

“I….” Susan gasped. She felt the woman’s deep green eyes boring into her mind. She was rooted to the spot by the hypnotic power that was only broken when the woman reached and grasped her by the hair, pulling several strands out by the root. It hurt. Susan found her voice and screamed.

“Oi, what’s going on here?” She felt a woman’s hands grasping her shoulders while a man stepped between her and the strange woman. “Bloody gippo, accostin’ a young girl in the street. Get off wi’ you, afore I call a copper and ‘ave you arrested for beggin’ with menaces.”

The woman did look a little like the gypsies that were sometimes seen selling trinkets or lucky heather in the street. She was darker skinned than most Londoners and her skirt was ankle length with a shawl around her shoulders that might have been hand-made. But she didn’t have any trinkets with her and the scowl on her face would have put off any possible customers.

“You be a minding your own business,” the gypsy woman said to the man, who Susan recognised as the newspaper seller who stood by the entrance to the cinema every evening. The woman who had held onto her worked at the sweet counter inside the foyer. Both had come running when they heard her scream. Susan felt grateful to them but ashamed that she had drawn so much attention to herself in public, quite against her grandfather’s instructions to her.

“Off with you,” the newspaper seller repeated. A policeman had appeared around a corner across the road. The gypsy saw his blue uniform and stepped away from the little group, though her attitude remained as intransigent and as malevolent as before. She pointed a long, thin finger at Susan and repeated what she has said before.

“You should find out what it is to be old.”

Then she turned and ran down the alleyway again. The newspaper seller gave chase, but came back a few minutes later to say that she had vanished. The alleyway led to the back of the cinema and it was a dead end other than the locked emergency exits.

“It beats me,” he said to the policeman who had come to find out what was happening. “It’s like she vanished into thin air. But she was here a minute ago, trying to rough up this girl.”

The sweet counter woman had already started to give an account of what had happened from her point of view. It matched exactly what the newspaper man saw. Both took the view that a ‘gippo’ had been threatening Susan, a well-dressed schoolgirl on her way home and accused the policeman of not doing enough to protect decent people from ‘that sort’.

“Well, it looks like no harm done this time,” the policeman said when he was able to get a word in edgeways. “Thanks to the pair of you. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for a gypsy making trouble around about. What about you, miss? Do you think you can get home on your own or would you like me to walk with you?”

“I… I’ll be fine,” Susan assured him. “My home is only just up that way.” She waved vaguely towards the junction at the end of Pitfield Street. The policeman let her go, but he watched her until she turned off at Haberdasher Street. She knew he was just making sure the gypsy woman didn’t come near her again, but all the same she was glad when she had gone out of his view. She ran again and reached the turn into the much narrower Totter’s Lane and slowed only when she reached the gate leading into the old scrapyard where a disused policebox was incongruously parked.

“Ah, Susan, there you are,” her grandfather said as she stepped inside. “I was starting to wonder. You’re very late.”

“I’m sorry, grandfather,” she said. “I… I stopped to look at the new records in the shop on….”

He only half listened to her excuse before ticking her off for dawdling. Then he dismissed the whole thing and told her that the tea was ready. They ate together. Afterwards, she quickly did her homework for her teachers at Coal Hill School, read four of the works of Charles Dickens, and then spent the rest of the evening practicing the elements of the periodic table with her Grandfather.

“Don’t forget, my dear, that in this time on Earth the table is far from complete.”

“Yes, I know,” Susan answered. “There are only one hundred and four of them on the poster in Mr Chesterton’s science room, and it was only printed this year, brand new.”

“Number one hundred and five will be discovered by humans in four years time,” The Doctor told her.

“Dubnium,” Susan said with a smile. “But it is an artificially created element on Earth. We call it Duriguttium, after the Time Lord who discovered it while researching the planetary systems of the Andromeda galaxy.”

“Well remembered, my dear. But that is something else that will be no use to you in the Human school of yours. Take care not to give yourself away with such knowledge.”

“I will be careful, Grandfather,” Susan promised. “Will you… can you go through the monetary system again for me. I do keep having problems with it when I go into shops. It would be SO much better if they had a decimal system on Earth.”

“They do in many parts of it,” The Doctor reminded her. “Earth is unusual in having several different forms of government and monetary systems, even so many different physical forms within the one single species. That’s something else to be careful of, my dear. You know how very important it is not to give away that you are a stranger to this world. It would be so very dangerous if they knew.”

“I know, Grandfather. You have told me so very often. But I wonder… sometimes… if you’re right. The people I meet every day, they’re just ordinary people. They don’t want to do anything to us. I wonder if we could trust them….”

She should have known better. She knew what her grandfather’s response would be. His face tightened and he spoke hard and bitterly to her for a long time.

“I’m sorry, Grandfather,” she said when he ran out of words. Tears pricked her eyes. She hate it when he was angry with her. “I am so sorry. Of course I will do as you say. I don’t mean to be disobedient.”

“I know you don’t,” he answered her a little softer. He smiled and his whole face changed, becoming more like the grandfather she loved. He held out his arms to her and she sat on his knee and felt him enfold her in a loving embrace.

“You’re nearly too old for me to do this,” he said. “You’re growing up so very fast. What can I do to stop it?”

“Nothing,” Susan told him. “I’m supposed to grow up.”

“Alas,” he sighed, but he didn’t mean it. Of course she had to grow up. She already was. By Human standards she was almost a woman, and he would have to do all he could to make sure she was happy despite how he yearned to hold back time and keep her as his child forever.

Right now, at least, she was here with him. The bitterness from earlier was gone, now, and it was the two of them again, just as it had been for as long as she could remember.

After she had gone to bed, he spent a few hours in the console room calibrating systems. At least he hoped they were calibrating. Sometimes he wondered if the TARDIS would ever fly again. It felt as if the machine was as old and weary as he was.

He sat down for a few minutes and before he knew anything more he fell asleep right there in the console room. It happened a lot that way. It was something else that worried him.

Susan woke up to the little alarm clock that rang every school day morning. She tried to get up but she felt so sick and weary. Her bones ached and her eyes hurt when she tried to open them.

“Grandfather,” she called out in a voice that croaked strangely. “Grandfather….”

Her bedroom door opened and somebody rushed to her side. She felt a pair of strong arms around her shoulders and she was pressed against a familiar shirt that faintly smelt of her grandfather’s pipe tobacco. She felt a glass against her lips and drank something medicinal, sweetened with lemon and honey. It helped loosen her dry throat.

But there was something not right about the voice that spoke soothingly to her. She struggled to open her eyes fully and stared in shock at the young man who adjusted the pillow and gently laid her head back down on it. He was vaguely familiar, and she wasn’t exactly frightened of him, but she was very confused on top of the physical pain she was in.

“Who are you?” she asked. “Where is Grandfather?”

“Susan,” he answered her. “I AM your grandfather. Something very strange has happened. I don’t know what it is, and it’s terribly unfair on you, but I mean to find out what it is and put it right.”

“I don’t understand,” Susan said. “How can you be….”

But as her eyes adjusted to the light in the room she looked at him more carefully. She remembered photographs that he occasionally showed her of when he was a young man with a sweetheart who had the same dark hair and brown eyes as she had. He looked like that when he was about two hundred years old – just at the start of his adult life.

“Grandfather….” She grasped his hand in hers and that was when the second shock sank in. She looked at her own hands and didn’t recognise them. The flesh was thin and wrinkled with age and the knuckles were painful knots of rheumatism.

She pressed her hands to her face and felt the lines of old age on her features. She turned and grasped a hand mirror on the bedside cabinet and looked at a face she hardly recognised, at hair that was almost pure white and brittle, tired eyes, cracked lips.

“What happened?” she asked. Tears pricked her eyes, and they hurt as if even crying was hard work. “What happened to us?”

“Somehow, we have been… switched. I’m young again and you… you’re old. That’s why it hurts, my poor child. You’re suffering all of the aches and pains of old age… rheumatism, arthritis… bad eyesight, backache….”

“All the things that usually trouble you?”


“Why?” she asked. “Why would that happen? We’re both here inside the TARDIS, where we’ve always been safe. Why would such a thing happen? Grandfather….”

She coughed, and kept on coughing with a worrying catch in the back of her throat. Her Grandfather reached for the glass of medicine again and helped her drink.

“I think I should take you to the medical room for a thorough examination,” he told her. “In case there is anything serious I need to give you treatment for.”

She always called him ‘Grandfather’. She often forgot that he was known by anyone who knew him at all as ‘The Doctor’. He chose that name for other reasons, but he WAS a skilled medical man among other accomplishments. When he lifted her from the bed, wrapped in a blanket to keep her warm, she felt quite confident that he would look after her. She pressed her head against his shoulder as he carried her through the TARDIS corridors to the only very rarely needed medical room. People from their world very rarely got sick. They were immune to most diseases. All but the most grievous wounds repaired by themselves in a few hours. But every TARDIS came with fully equipped medical facilities.

‘Fully equipped’ included a whole body scanner. The Doctor laid Susan on the examination table and carefully examined every inch of her from head to toe. The results quickly appeared on a monitor near the table but out of sight of the patient. The Doctor looked at it carefully then went to the dispensary cabinet and prepared a syringe.

“What is that?” Susan asked as he rubbed her arm with a sterile wipe and then injected the clear liquid into her veins.

“It’s an anti-inflammatory to relieve the pain in your joints. I’m going to prepare an ointment, too. You can rub it on where it hurts the most. I also need you to drink a preparation I’m making up now, and then drink as much water as you can, to flush out your kidneys. I’m worried about renal problems. There is a little fluid in your lungs, too. There’s an inhaler that will help with that.”

He finished administering the best medicines at his disposal, then lifted her gently from the examination table and brought her to a comfortable bed in the corner of the room. He settled her in the bed before setting up a drip containing a painkiller that she could administer for herself if she was uncomfortable. It was a futuristic device that didn’t need a syringe, just a small pad attached to the arm. The analgesics passed into the body through the skin my a modified form of osmosis.

“How many things are wrong with my body?” Susan asked fearfully as she watched those preparations. “Am I going to die?”

“No, my dear, not at all. These are the problems that old people suffer for years and years before death. They are troublesome and wearisome, but in themselves not fatal.”

“Do you suffer this way, Grandfather?”

“Sometimes,” he admitted. “I’m getting near to my first regeneration. It’s a difficult time for a Time Lord.”

“You’re not in any pain, now, though?”

“No. I feel… young. I feel better than I have for a very, very long time. But if the price of my health and vitality is your pain and unhappiness, then it isn’t worth it. I am sorry, my dear Susan.”

“It’s not your fault, Grandfather,” Susan assured him. But the look in his eyes told her that he felt responsible. He really didn’t think his own youth and health was a fair swap for her pain and unhappiness.

“I love you, my dear,” he said. “My dear granddaughter. I don’t wish any harm to come to you. I would rather die than see anything bad happen to you.”

“Don’t say that,” she said. “I don’t want anything to happen to you, either. Besides… you look so…. Is that really how you looked when you were a young man?”

“Yes, it is,” he answered. “I had almost forgotten. I have been old for so very long – since before you were born. But once I was young, and I had a beautiful sweetheart… your grandmother. You look so very much like her.”

“You mean I DID look like her… before….”

The Doctor paused and grasped his granddaughter’s hand. She looked right now like his wife had looked when she was old and infirm. He had loved her until the very end. She had always looked beautiful in his eyes, even when her hair was white and her face lined. He had never, not for a single moment, strayed from his love for her.

And his love for his granddaughter was equally strong. That was why he was determined to find out what had happened and to reverse it.

He left her side, but he made sure she could see him as he worked, testing a sample of her blood, as well as his own. All that yielded was the scientific proof of what he had known from the day she was born – that she was his own direct descendent with her DNA as close to his as he would expect it to be.

There was nothing that explained this strange reversal of their fortunes. Nothing that science could explain, and that left him with a frustrating sense of helplessness, because for all of his long life science had always provided the answers. He couldn’t imagine any scenario where it would let him down.

Until now.

“Grandfather….” Susan called out to him. He left his experiments and came to her side. She grasped his hand in hers. “Grandfather, please don’t think you’ve failed me. Besides, I think… I think it might be all my fault.”

“How could it possibly be your fault, my dear child?” he answered. “Don’t trouble yourself with such thoughts.”

“No… but… Grandfather, I’m sorry…. I really am.” She cried as she told him what had happened on the way home from school yesterday evening, including the strange threat the woman had made.

“You should find out what it is to be old.”

“She did something to me, didn’t she?”

“I think she must have done,” The Doctor agreed. “I’m not sure how she did it. She didn’t get hold of a piece of your clothing or anything belonging to you?”

“I don’t think so,” Susan answered. “Why? What could that possibly have to do with it?”

“A piece of something personal, clothing, a little drop of blood, hair, nail clippings or a tooth… can be used to control a person, to do them harm or make them act against their will. You think she was a gypsy?”

“I… think so. She spoke differently to the ordinary people in the street and there was something about her eyes….”

“The Romani are an ancient people. Their memories go back a long way. She may know of the Old Magic.”

“She pulled at my hair,” Susan told him. “But I thought she was just being nasty. Grandfather, surely we don’t believe in magic. We’re scientists. We’re logical and….”

Of course, when she said ‘we’ she meant their great race of Time Lords, a people who were above superstition and the supernatural, things that lesser people call ‘magic’.

“We don’t believe in it, but many people do, and their belief can make it as powerful as the most advanced science. I will have to find that woman, Susan. I can’t undo what she has done. Old Magic defies science.”

“You mean, you have to leave me?”

“I don’t want to, but it is the only way I can make this right. It would be better if you could sleep while I’m gone. Susan, my dear, look at my watch….”

He held up his pocket watch on its chain and swung it rhythmically. Susan knew he was hypnotising her. She knew he could do it. Any other time she might have protested, but she knew that sleep really was the best thing for her, and he could send her into a peaceful sleep that would last until he returned to her side.

It didn’t take very long. She was soon sleeping calmly. He knew she would stay that way for several hours. He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead, then turned away reluctantly.

She had told him exactly what happened and where it occurred. He had also seen the memory of it in her mind. He knew what the Romani woman looked like and where she had gone after the contretemps. He nodded politely to the newspaper seller and walked down the alleyway that ought to have led to the back of the former variety theatre, currently being used as a cinema.

It didn’t. At least, the waste ground he came out into WAS part of the old theatre, but now it was a pile of rubble.

He knew that was wrong. The building was still standing in 1963. It was still being used regularly. He and Susan had been to see films there on occasion.

There was a time rift in that alleyway. It wouldn’t affect ordinary humans. They could come and go without ever realising there was a problem. But anyone even remotely time sensitive would come out at a different time in the history of Shoreditch.

He retraced his steps and heard the traffic on Pitfield Street and the newspaper seller calling out in that strange street patois they had. He saw the side wall of the late nineteenth century theatre standing strong and tall where a moment ago it had been broken remnants with a hard hat area warning sign on a chain link fence.

He walked back again and heard much louder traffic and far more of it. He looked up and saw a jet plane’s vapour trail, and as he looked even closer, his young Time Lord eyes made out the International Space Station slowly orbiting the planet.

He was in the late twentieth century, or possibly the early twenty-first, he concluded.

And it was the right time and place to find the gypsy woman who had put her curse – or whatever it was – on Susan. He knew that as soon as he saw the grubby caravan parked in the debris strewn place where the theatre used to be.

He moved closer and reached to open the door. He was beaten to it. The door opened and the woman stepped out. She stared at him with eyes that almost flashed in anger.

“Begone from here. I will not be moved from this place.”

“I’m not a bailiff,” The Doctor answered. “Though I can see that you are occupying private property and you ought to be moved on. But that’s another matter. I’m here about what you did to my granddaughter.”

“Your….” The same green eyes flashed with exultation as she looked at the young, healthy man who stood before her. “That shouldn’t have happened. I should have absorbed her lifeforce, not you.”

“Ah,” The Doctor murmured. “Yes, I see what happened. You reckoned without the TARDIS. The dimensional relativity within it made your magic backfire. Or perhaps it was just that I was closer to Susan than you and absorbed her lifeforce by mistake. In any case, I am here to make you put it right.”

“Never,” the gypsy woman responded. “The girl was rude to me. She deserved to be punished.”

“She was nothing of the sort. She told me what happened. It was an accident. She apologised. Susan is a good girl. She does everything I ask her, even when my rules chafe against her youthful spirit. She would never be rude to anyone, and certainly NOT her elders. I did not bring her up that way.”

“They’re all the same, these days,” the gypsy woman grumbled. “Throwing stones, calling of names, filthy, rude brats. They all deserve to know what it is to be old.”

“Perhaps that’s true of some children,” The Doctor conceded. “Perhaps more so in this time. You must know of the rift that brings you out in a different time. You’re a practitioner of the old magic. You’ll be able to pass through it easily.”

“I know of it,” she answered. “But what’s that got to do with anything?”

“Absolutely nothing,” The Doctor told her. “Except to warn you it’s probably temporary, a disturbance caused by the demolition. You need to be careful not to get caught in the wrong time when it closes again. But I need you to take back what you did to Susan. You got it wrong about her. Undo the magic, and let her be herself again.”

“Why should I?” the gypsy asked. “Youth is wasted on the young. I wanted to be young again… but it worked for you instead. Don’t you want the chance to be healthy and able again, free from the aches and pains of age? Think what you could do with your life to live over again.”

“I will get my chance when the time comes,” The Doctor replied. “Not like this. Not if it costs Susan her life. Don’t you understand? Did you never have children? She is the most important thing I EVER achieved in my life. She is the most important thing I will ever do. She is the best proof of my whole existence.”

The gypsy woman looked at him and nodded.

“Yes… that’s the right answer,” she said. “That’s the only argument that would sway me.” She turned and went back into her caravan. The Doctor waited. He had not been invited into her home.

A few minutes later she returned carrying a small teardrop shaped glass bottle. There was a shimmering green liquid within it. A single strand of dark hair floated freely within the liquid. The gypsy pressed it into The Doctor’s hand.

“You know what to do with it?” she asked.

“I do,” he said.

“Then it is done.”

The gypsy woman turned again and went into her caravan, closing the door behind her. The Doctor turned and walked away. He looked up again at another vapour trail in the sky then walked through the alleyway that brought him back to 1963. The planes at this age of Human flight didn’t leave vapour trails. Somewhere in orbit there was one of the earliest artificial satellites, but it wasn’t within his view at this moment.

He walked back through the busy streets of Shoreditch to the junk yard in Totters Lane where he and Susan had made their home in a forgotten place much as the gypsy woman had made hers. He went straight to the medical room and found Susan still asleep.

He didn’t wake her, yet. He took the bottle of ‘Old Magic’ out of his pocket and deliberately dropped it on the floor. The bottle cracked and the liquid seeped out, making a sticky mess for a short while before a self-cleaning property in the medical room floor made it evaporate completely.

He picked up the pieces of broken glass and took the strand of hair from it before dropping the dangerous shards in the bin. He opened Susan’s hand and placed the hair on her palm, then closed her fingers around it. She was unaware of anything happening. He sat by her side and waited.

Susan woke up aware of the analgesic self-administering pad fixed to her arm, but she wasn’t in any pain and she didn’t need it. She sat up in the bed and pulled the sticky pad off. She noticed her hands as she did so. She touched her face and was satisfied that all was as it should be.

She saw her grandfather sitting on the chair by the bed. He was old again. He had fallen asleep sitting up as he so very often did. She reached out and touched his shoulder. He woke suddenly and looked at her. He smiled warmly and hugged her.

“You found a way to fix everything,” she said. “I knew you would, Grandfather. You always find a way.”

“It wasn’t really all me,” he admitted. “Let’s get something to eat and if you feel up to it, we should take a little walk. I want to be sure about something.”

Susan ate ravenously. It had been a long time since she had felt able to eat anything at all. Afterwards she washed and dressed in casual clothes, noting that it was already past five o’clock. She had missed a whole day of school.

“It’s Friday,” The Doctor reminded her. “School is over for the week. I’ll write you a note for Monday – to say that you were sick.”

“That will surprise them. I’ve never been sick before.”

They walked in near silence back towards Pitfield street where the strange events of the past twenty-four hours had begun. It all looked very much the same. The newspaper seller was still at his stand. The Gaumont cinema was just opening up for the early evening programme. The lady at the sweet counter was serving some of the early customers.

The Doctor and Susan slipped down the alleyway at the side. Susan was very surprised when they emerged at the other end of the time rift where the cinema was now a pile of rubble. Susan listened to the very different sound of cars and buses with catalytic converters. She smelt the cleaner air in an era when central heating had replaced coal fires. She knew without a doubt that this was a different time.

The caravan was still there. She was a little nervous as she approached it at her grandfather’s side. She was even more apprehensive about stepping inside.

“Oh, Grandfather!” she exclaimed when she saw the old woman lying on the untidy bed within the caravan. She had not been dead for long, but her body looked utterly wasted as if she had aged by thirty or forty more years in her last minutes.

“She must have been using the same method to hold back her years for a long time,” The Doctor said as he leaned over and closed the dead woman’s eyes and pulled a blanket over her face. He looked up at a row of small bottles with green liquid in them above the bed. “She may only have taken a little time off each of her victims. She lost her temper with you and tried to take it all. When I reversed the process the shock was too much for her body. I wonder if she knew that when she relented and gave me the bottle. She looks as if she made herself ready for death.”

“I’m sorry that happened,” Susan said.

“Of course you are, my dear. You are a compassionate, kind girl. I told her that. Come, Susan. We have done all we can, here.”

They left the little caravan. The Doctor looked around and saw a jumble of old newspapers and rubbish. He struck a match and dropped it among the pile. The dry paper caught quickly.

“Somebody will see the smoke and call the fire brigade. They will almost certainly check the caravan and find the body. She won’t be left there unattended and forgotten. But let us return to our own place now. Tomorrow is Saturday. It will surely be a pleasantly warm day. Shall we have an outing? Perhaps a picnic at Primrose Hill? I remember visiting there in the 1860s. It was a very fashionable place, then, with ladies and gentlemen in fine clothes promenading.”

“It’s very fashionable, still, Grandfather,” Susan told him. “But fashion has moved on quite a bit in a hundred years.”

“It always does, my dear,” The Doctor said with an indulgent smile.