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

Peri woke up in the middle of the night. She wasn’t sure exactly what time it was since The Doctor had made her leave her modern wristwatch in the TARDIS, but she guessed it had to be about two or three o’clock. It felt about right. She hadn’t gone to bed at eight o’clock in the evening since she was a child, and her brain just wasn’t tuned to the idea. She had actually fallen asleep out of boredom about nine and now she was wide awake again.

She was sleeping in the bed. The Doctor had taken the mat on the floor. She supposed it was some kind of chivalry on his part. Or perhaps he felt guilty about the whole pretending to be a boy/vow of silence thing.

The bed was only just better than the floor. Now she was awake she knew she wasn’t likely to get back to sleep again. She was cold, uncomfortable, and still very hungry, not having been satisfied at all by her suppertime portion of bread and water.

“Doctor….” she whispered. “Are you awake?”

There was no answer. She sat up and looked at the sleeping mat in the moonlight that shone through the very small, high, unglazed window.

He wasn’t there!

He had gone off ghost-hunting in the middle of the night without her!

Her angry exclamation broke her ‘vow of silence’, but the sound just bounced off the stone walls of the cell. Nobody was likely to have heard it beyond there.

She was still dressed in the robe. There was no question of undressing for bed. She found the crude sandals that had passed for footwear and strapped them on her feet before finding the door.

The corridor outside was lit by long candles in holders every few yards. The monks got up for their first prayers before dawn and nobody expected them to fall down the stairs in the dark.

The last of the candles gave light to the top of a flight of steps. There was another flickering pool of light at the bottom. In between was a dark section that Peri walked down very carefully before pushing open the heavy wooden door that led to the courtyard.

She had planned to find the kitchen first, before finding The Doctor, hoping to raid the pantry for a snack. The problem was, despite having a fairly good look around earlier, she wasn’t sure where anything was.

Apart from anything else, it was much darker outside than she expected. She was used to some form of street lighting at night. Even in the countryside she would be used to seeing distant strings of lights where roads carved up the landscape.

But this was the twelfth century. Everyone, everywhere, was asleep. There were no lights to be seen.

Except in the small windows of what she identified close up as Saint Kevin’s Church. This was one of several small churches within the monastery complex in addition to the Cathedral where the brethren had gathered for the services earlier. These small churches and chapels were obviously used for smaller congregations performing private devotions. But why should one of them be in use now, in the middle of the night?

A black Sabbath, devil worship? Her imagination easily conjured possibilities. Perhaps some of the monks – maybe even the abbot himself – weren’t as pious as they appeared. Perhaps something unholy was happening?

She opened the side door to the chapel quietly and slipped inside. There were no ante-rooms in this simple place of worship. She came straight into the nave where the small night-time congregation gathered in the light of the altar candles. She crouched behind a statue – possibly of St. Kevin, the sixth century founder of Glendalough - and watched the monks at their nocturnal devotions.

It was nothing peculiar, after all, she realised. This was Matins, the first ‘office’ of the day or the last one, depending on whether you considered two o’clock in the morning to be late night or early morning. Obviously at such an unsociable hour not all the brethren were required to attend this service. Only a dozen were there.

One of them was The Doctor! He must have decided to go along either to please his friend, the Abbot, or to watch for an appearance by the ghost.

He COULD have asked her to join him.

No, maybe not. She had been less than enthusiastic about the fact that a bell was going to sound before four o’clock in the morning to get the monastic community up in time for the divine office of Lauds. She would probably have said something quite inappropriate for a sanctified place if he had suggested getting up in time for the two o’clock service.

She crept away again and was going to return to her bed, bearing that early morning start in mind, when, now her eyes were accustomed to the night, she saw somebody moving in the shadows near the western end of the courtyard. It didn’t look like a ghost, but it was definitely somebody who wasn’t where they ought to be.

She followed, keeping a careful distance but keeping the mysterious figure in view. She soon found herself outside the cluster of buildings that made up the monastery and heading past the smaller of the two lakes of the glen – Lower Lake.

Imagination was obviously out to lunch the day these bodies of water were named!

The moonlight reflected brightly off the lake and she could make out the outline of the glen against the sky and the dense trees that came most of the way downhill.

As she came close to the larger Upper Lake she could also see a small stone building in similar style to those that belonged to the monastic community. Close up it looked less like a building for Human habitation and more a large dog kennel or small stable, but there were Human voices within.

If the humans were doing what she thought they were doing, then they would just about have enough room for it.

The monk who had slipped out here for an assignation was going against his vows of celibacy and probably breaking several other rules, too, but it was nothing to do with her, and nothing to do with the ghost. She quietly hurried away, leaving in peace the couple inside the structure called St. Kevin’s Cell where the founder of the community used to pray and meditate. It was probably thoroughly blasphemous to use the cell for anything other than those two functions, but again Peri judged it to be none of her business.

She got back to her own bed before The Doctor finished with the Matins service. She pretended to be asleep when he crept quietly into the room and settled himself on the floor.

The bell that woke the monks from their righteous slumber was exactly on time. Peri opened her eyes wearily, remembering that she had only had about an hour and a half sleep since her excursion outside. She noticed that her sandals were muddy from her walk down to the lake, and hoped that nobody else, especially not The Doctor, would also notice and wonder about it.

Some of the monks had been in the cathedral for nearly an hour before the rest of the brethren gathered there for Lauds. They had taken part in the ‘Vigil’ that began at four. As far as Peri could tell, these weren’t the same monks who had been at Matins. Surely no Human being could deal with that much prayer and that little sleep in one night!

She wondered which of the monks was the one who had slipped out during the night, taking part in neither of the acts of Devotion performed during the hours of darkness. As the dawn broke through the windows of the cathedral there was no way of being sure. It really was hard to tell one cowled monk from another.

After Lauds there was Communion. As she waited to kneel by the altar rail to share the transubstantiated bread and wine she noticed the monk already kneeling just in front of her.

Muddy sandals peeped out from under the hem of the robe. Muddy sandals just like her own. This, surely, was the monk who had gone down to the lake last night.

Her eyes moved across to the acolyte kneeling next to him. Another pair of muddy sandals. And something else. She looked as closely as she dared at the feet and ankles that fitted into those sandals and put two and two together.

Beneath her cowl she smiled knowingly.

After the service was over, the monks went to the refectory for breakfast. Peri’s stomach rebelled against the prospect of more bread and water.

She was pleasantly surprised to be served a large bowl of what looked like wholemeal porridge which could be flavoured with honey and cream, both of which were placed in dishes on the table. When that was done, there was a plate of what proved to be grilled kidneys eaten with warm barley bread – for which there was butter. All of the food was newly made, the bread and butter as fresh and flavoursome as she could imagine. Better than any factory made product of her own time, that was for sure.

The kidneys probably came from sheep slaughtered while they were at Lauds. The thought was a little disturbing, but that was life in the countryside. She and The Doctor, and the Abbot were served the kidneys as the best of the sweetbreads. The ordinary monks had slices of a sort of pudding made up of the heart and other internal organs mixed with barley. They seemed to enjoy it, but she was glad it hadn’t been offered to her.

She was tasting the mead that passed for a morning drink and finding it a little heavy for her stomach when the low murmur of necessary conversation turned to shouts of consternation. Abbot Lorcán rose from his seat and called for order, reminding the brethren that they were men of God and above such unseemly clamour.

The reason for the clamour was obvious. A man dressed in what Peri recognised as a space suit – though one far more futuristic than she knew in her own time – was walking THROUGH the tables where the monks were eating. Even the plumpest and hungriest of the gathering, one who might well fit the Friar Tuck stereotype, leaned back from his second plate of sheep organ pudding as the apparition passed through it.

The Doctor stood and followed the ghost as it walked in a direct line, apparently oblivious to the trouble it was causing in the refectory of Glendalough monastery. When it emerged from the end of the table – which had cut off the bottom half of it from view – he carefully took in every small detail of the clothing, walking around the ghost in a corkscrew movement as it continued to pursue its unwaveringly straight course.

Then to the general consternation of all, he stood in front of the ghost and let it walk right through him. Peri left her place at the table and went to run to him, but she stopped halfway, remembering that she was meant to be a silent boy, and couldn’t yell at him for doing anything so reckless.

The ghost didn’t falter in its step, yet for a moment it merged with The Doctor’s body.

Then it carried on, disappearing through the wall.

The disappearance of the ghost left the brethren just as disconcerted as its arrival. Abbot Lorcán called for them all to be calm. When they didn’t obey he began reciting a prayer in Latinm One by one the monks joined with him. The Doctor walked back to his place at the table, silently passing Peri who turned and followed him. By the time they reached their seats near the Abbot the monks had reached a decisive ‘amen’ and returned to their breakfast with only low murmurs of necessary conversation.

After breakfast was Terce, the second of the Divine offices, said in the cathedral in the presence of the whole of the brethren. They were, it had to be said, a little restless, heads turning to look into the rafters and around about to see if the ghost turned up again.

It didn’t. The breakfast visit seemed to be it for now. After Terce, the monks gathered in the Chapter House to be allocated their work for the day – in the kitchen or the garden, the malthouse or the laundry, or for the most learned, the library where they sat carefully copying Bibles and Psalters all day.

Peri found herself assigned to the garden along with a group of the younger monks. The one whose sandals were already muddy was among the group. Although she was a little worried about being separated from The Doctor – who had gone off with the Abbot for a private discussion of the morning events – she was intrigued by her own little mystery and considered it an opportunity to delve into it further.

Of course, there was hard work to be done. long before pesticides and weed killers there was far more to be done among the rows of beans and cabbages than Peri knew possible. Individually picking the caterpillars from the cabbage leaves and depositing them in a bucket of water was one particularly unpleasant job, and one she thought possibly futile. The cabbages were going to get nibbled by those caterpillars with the sense to hide, and nothing was going to keep the fruit flies off the strawberry beds.

Two hours went by under an unforgiving sun. Hiding her face under a woollen cowl was less than ideal in such weather. Her eyes were shaded, but sweat poured into them as she worked. If she had a mirror to look into, she would probably be appalled at the redness of her face and the state of her hair.

But she knew how to do gardening, at least, and it had to be better than the laundry, so she stuck at it until the bell rang for Sext, the third of the Hours of divine office, recited at the sixth hour – noon. It was a surprise to her that so much time had passed, but Peri leaned her hoe against the garden wall and followed the others.

Then she noticed one of the monks slipping away behind the Chapter House. She carefully peeled away from the crowd and followed. Non-descript grey-brown was a good colour for hiding in the shadows beside granite and mica-slate. She wasn’t spotted until she was ready to make her presence known.

“I think I know your secret,” she said to the frightened young monk who she cornered between the Chapter House and the outer wall of the monastery complex. She pushed her hood down for the first time since she arrived at Glendalough to reveal her short, but decidedly feminine hair and womanly features.

The other monk did the same to reveal red hair that might have been hurriedly cut short with a knife. Green eyes filled with frightened tears. Peri put her own cowl back over her head and reached to do the same for the slender girl who had hid herself beneath the shapeless robe for much longer than she had.

“It was the ankles that gave you away. Try to keep your feet covered when you kneel if you intend to go on with this subterfuge. I’m guessing that your lover came here to be a monk. You disguised yourself as a boy and joined him.”

The cowled head nodded. Peri guessed that the face beneath it was disconsolate.

“Obviously I’m not going to give you away,” she said. “But I think you and your lover ought to consider some other way of life. Sooner or later the game will be up and I imagine there might be some sort of nasty punishment for what you’re doing.”

A deep sigh came from beneath the cowl.

“Yes, I know. Tough choices. But we all have to make them. One of these days I’ll have to decide what kind of life I want after travelling with The Doctor. It’s going to be the biggest decision of my life.”

The twelfth century woman caught up in a love story worthy of a TV mini-series didn’t really understand how big a step leaving The Doctor would be for Peri, but she recognised a kindred spirit.

“We’d better wait here until the service is over then rejoin the others in the refectory,” Peri suggested. She felt as if she had skipped a lesson at school, and the fact that it was lunch afterwards only made it worse.

Then the ghost appeared, walking through the outer wall and steadily moving past the two girls disguised as monks as they pressed themselves as far out of reach as possible. The Doctor may not have been harmed by his contact with the apparition, but they were taking no chances.

It passed into the Chapter House. There was a shout from within and a man ran out.

“Brendáin!” The surprisingly shapely monk called out in a too-feminine voice. Brother Brendáin looked around with a horrified expression as she ran to embrace him. Peri looked around to make sure this corner of the monastery was still quiet then she drew closer to them.

“What happened in there?” she asked. “What frightened you so much, Brendáin?”

“It walked through me,” he said, so traumatised by his experience that he didn’t even realise it was another woman in a monk’s habit speaking to him. “I felt its memories, its thoughts… the world it comes from… carriages without horses, carriages in the sky… the world… a ball spinning… people… so many people… so much noise….”

“It’s all right,” Peri told him gently. “Those things aren’t real. Don’t worry. They can’t harm you.”

“But….” Brendáin looked at Peri, and then looked beyond her. His expression froze in horror. Peri glanced around and saw The Doctor and Abbot Lorcáin standing there.

“What is going on here?” the Abbot asked. “Brother Brendáin, were you and these two young men at divine office?”

“I….” Brendáin was the only one who could possibly speak out loud and he stammered incoherently. The Abbott glanced at the two silent acolytes, then back at the monk.

“I am sure I heard a woman’s voice,” he said.

“No… no, it isn’t possible,” Brendáin managed to say. “You must be mistaken, father Abbot.”

“No, you weren’t mistaken,” Peri said, pushing back her hood.

“My word!” Lorcáin exclaimed.

“The deception was necessary,” The Doctor said apologetically. “In order for Peri and I to conduct our investigation. Brendáin, come with me. I’d like to hear more about your encounter with the ghost. Lorcáin, why don’t you take these two into lunch.”

For a moment Lorcáin seemed to have forgotten that he was Abbot, let alone that one of the monks he was asked to escort to the refectory had just revealed herself as a woman. The power of one glance from The Doctor’s piercing blue eyes had that effect on him. It lasted until he was giving the blessing before the meal, by which time he couldn’t do anything about it.

Peri ate her boiled mutton and beans silently, not because of any vow, but because she couldn’t think of anything to say to Lorcáin. She knew he would have many questions to ask if he were not among his brethren. He was entitled to ask them, but she really hoped The Doctor would provide the answers, not her.

After lunch was a period of study and individual prayer for most of the brethren, but The Doctor and Peri went with Lorcáin to his private dayroom. The Doctor answered most of his questions, more or less truthfully.

“The ‘ghost’ is not a ghost as you imagine it, my friend,” he explained. “It isn’t the Earthbound form of a soul who is dead, whose life is in the past. Rather, it is a man who is alive in the future. A sort of echo of him has rebounded through time to be visible to you and your brethren.”

“How can this be?” Lorcáin asked. “The clothes he wears… what kind of future does he live in?”

“One where fashions have changed a great deal,” The Doctor answered. “As fashions do from one year to the next outside these walls. You have travelled. You have seen that much. The Normans have spread their kind of clothing throughout Britain, and even in Ireland, the native people taking on their habits – no pun intended. In that far future, the same has happened in a much more extreme way.”

“And again, I must ask, how can it be? How does this echo come to us?”

“Time is damaged,” The Doctor replied. “This is something with no explanation in the books you read, my friend. Your Bible has no wisdom for it, nor the rules of St. Benedict or any other such work of wisdom. But trust me when I say that other books, beyond even your great knowledge, do tell of such things, and I have both the knowledge and the experience. I can mend time just as your prayers mend the souls of men.”

“I believe you, Doctor,” Lorcáin answered him. “I suppose asking how this would be done is of no avail? I doubtless would not understand your words.”

“You are wise to understand that it is beyond your understanding,” The Doctor told him gently. “I cannot do it here. In any case, what I have to do would not be understood by your brethren living in their closed world of prayer and devotion. Peri and I will go away while the monks are at their studies. We will be back later, to spend a more easy time with you.”

“I will call the brethren together to keep a vigil until your return,” Lorcáin promised. “Our prayers may help you in your task.”

“They may well do that,” The Doctor answered. He stood and bowed his head respectfully to his venerable friend then turned to leave, Peri following him.

“To the TARDIS?” she asked.

“To the TARDIS,” he confirmed.