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

"Wow!" Ray exclaimed. She turned from the console screen and went to the TARDIS door. She wanted to see this for real.

If it WAS real.

"It can't be real. Those are NOT boats - actual sailing boats - sea-going boats - sailing in space."

The Doctor came to her side as she counted twelve of the amazing vessels around, above and below the TARDIS. Their riding lights gave them an ethereal glow against the purple-black starfield, adding to the whole impossibility of them.

He was glad that she was impressed – even excited. She had been a little down since Jes, having taken leave to travel with them, was recalled to the Space Corps to deal with an unexpected crisis. He promised to come back once the emergency was settled, but she didn’t know when that might be. THIS might be a good diversion for her.

"Galway Hookers," he said.

"Come again?" Ray knew two uses of the word 'hooker'. One was to do with rugby, a subject that, being Welsh, she couldn't avoid knowing about.

The other use was one a well brought up Welsh woman didn't talk about.

Neither seemed to have anything to do with Galway, a county in Ireland, and what did THAT have to do with these incredible boats in space?

"A Galway Hooker is a traditional fishing boat from the west of Ireland," The Doctor explained. "These space ships are styled on the form. Of course, the outer appearance is purely aesthetic. There is a perfectly ordinary cigar-shaped spaceship beneath the façade. The sails are functional in much the same way as the sails of a sailing ship, except instead of catching wind these are light collectors, gathering solar energy from the stars to power the ships. They are much bigger than the sailing ships, very roomy inside."

"And what are they doing out here in space?" Ray asked. One of the boats was closing in on the TARDIS. She could see a name on the prow. Rí na Chladach.

"King of the Claddagh?" Ray translated. She didn’t read Irish usually, at least not without help from the TARDIS technology, but she was fluent in Welsh and one Celtic language wasn’t too far different from another. “Nice name for a boat, even a space one.”

They spotted a man standing by the mast and waving to them.

"Ahoy, travellers,” he called out. “Heave to and come aboard. Meet the crew and have a drink with us."

"That sounds friendly enough," The Doctor said. "Let's go and socialise."

He went back to the console and manually guided the TARDIS until it was alongside the boat. Ray felt a slight jolt and heard a fizz of electricity.

“Electronic mooring," The Doctor explained as he came back and took her hand. "The TARDIS is 'tied' to the boat until we're ready to part company."

He stepped over the TARDIS threshold and onto the deck of the boat, bringing Ray with him. She looked up and around, feeling oddly vulnerable with nothing but empty space on all sides. Of course, she guessed, there had to be some sort of force field that created an air supply and gravity on deck. She mentioned it to The Doctor and he confirmed her guess.

"It takes a lot of power to maintain, though," he added. "They put it on especially for us.”

"Good day to you," said the man who had invited them. He was dressed in an Aran sweater and corduroy trousers just like the sort of hardy fisherman who would have been aboard the sea-going boat this one emulated.

He introduced himself as Bríain Ó Murchú, First Mate aboard the Rí na Chladach.

"I'm The Doctor, and this is Rachel," The Doctor said in reply.

"Come and meet the King himself," Ó Murchú told them.

“King?” Ray whispered to The Doctor.

“It’ll make sense in due time,” he assured her.

Ó Murchú brought them down through a hatchway to the inside deck. As it was closed behind them there was a hiss of pressurisation. The hatch was sealed and the outside atmosphere could be dispensed with until they were ready to leave. Another companionway brought them down to a large room with portholes along both sides where the crew of the Rí na Chladach were having an impromptu party.

They were mostly men of various ages, dressed in hard-wearing clothes. The few women – obviously wives of some of the hands - looked almost as hard wearing. They all wore slacks and sweaters and had practical hairstyles. None of them wore make up. Ray was casually dressed herself, but she felt quite glamorous in comparison.

The King was dressed just the same as the others but he had a bearing that marked him out among his peers. Apart from the unmistakeable mark of authority he was thoroughly handsome. He was a tall, dark haired, dark eyed man who might easily have inspired Emily Bronte's Heathcliff or any number of such fictional heroes – the sort with a dash of the slightly dangerous and fatally compelling about them.

He was introduced as Peadar Ó Máille, King of the Claddagh.

"There's no need to bow," he said, taking Ray's hand in his and kissing it gently. "It is merely a traditional title for the head of the clan. But come and sit down here. There's wine for a lady to drink and Irish whiskey for your companion to toast our health, and music to charm away the hours."

Drinks were brought. Food was provided, too. Despite being in deep space there was farm-made cheese and fresh fruit with thick slices of what looked a bit like the traditional lava bread of Wales, but was an Irish soda bread recipe. Fresh butter went with the bread and cheese, along with bowls of dried slices of fish. They had a salted taste that led to drinking more wine or whiskey, helping to keep the party atmosphere going.

"Do they do this for every visitor?" Ray asked The Doctor as she watched four women and their husbands dancing a complicated set dance to the sound of the King himself playing a fiddle and Murchú on an accordion with one of the women setting the rhythm with that unique Irish percussion instrument called a bodhrán.

"I don't think they get very many visitors out here in deep space," he answered. "This is a bit of a red letter day for them. They're a very gregarious people. They love music and dancing - and whiskey."

The set came to an end. Another crew member took over from The King while he came to Ray and held out his hand in invitation.

"I couldn't do what you were doing," she said. "It's too fast and too complicated."

"This is a gentler set," he assured her. And, indeed, it was. He held her in the formal way for a waltz as the fiddle played a tune called The Galway Shawl. Ó Máille sang it as he whirled Ray around the floor. She smiled warmly at him. In the back of her mind she knew that Jes WAS coming back some time, but he wasn’t there now, and this was a truly romantic moment that she wanted to enjoy to the full.

When the set was over he brought her to a wide seat where they could talk. The pace of the music had quickened again and Ray was only slightly surprised to see The Doctor and one of the crew having a sort of step dance duel, each trying to outdo the other in the complexity of their footwork.

"Your friend must have some Irish in him," Ó Máille remarked.

"Nothing would surprise me about The Doctor," Ray answered.

"Are you and him...." Ó Máille added. He actually seemed a little awkward about asking that essential question. Awkwardness didn’t seem like something he normally suffered from, so Ray did her best not to prolong the agony.

"No, not at all," she assured him. "We're just friends. We travel around in the TARDIS - to meet interesting people. "

She didn’t add that she had an ‘understanding’ with Jes. She wasn’t sure why she didn’t do that. It would have been the fair, the honest thing to do. But there was something in Ó Máille’s expression that made her want to let him think the field was clear.

"I hope we measure up," he said with a smile worthy of a Mr D’Arcy or an Edward Rochester.

"Oh, absolutely," she replied. "But please tell me more about why you travel in these strange space ships and how you got to be the King of the Claddagh."

"The boats are our homes, our transport and our way of life," he explained. "It all comes from the old days back on Earth. The King was elected from among the men as the clan leader, the judge of disputes, the settler of marriage portions - all that class of thing. I was elected five years ago, after my father, the previous king, died.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Ray told him kindly. He accepted her condolences and assured her that his father had been a good age and had lived his life to the full before going back to his explanation of his clan’s history.

“The people of the Claddagh were fishing folk. More than twenty generations ago now we first left the sea and reached across the stars. We discovered the way to trawl space, not for fish, but for minerals."

"Minerals?" Ray queried.

"Minerals, ar ndóigh. Space isn't so empty as you'd imagine. There's a wealth to be gathered from the dust and debris that gets tossed about by the solar winds or pulled into the gravitational fields of stars. Our electronic nets bring in great hauls every time we cast them out."

"I see," Ray told him, though she didn't quite. It really didn't matter. "It sounds like a great life, sailing through space, living as you please. The boats are amazing. "

"It is a fine life. I wouldn't swap it for all the gold at the end of the rainbow. The only thing I’m in need of is a wife to travel along with me and share the adventure, the glories and the triumphs as well as the hardships."

That was fishing of a different kind. Again Ray wondered if she ought to have come clean with him.

"You've not found anyone?" she asked.

"Few women find the endless wandering to their liking. They don't want to sleep in a cabin and eat out of a galley. Most of them would start hankering after a house and furniture, bedrooms and best parlours before long."

"I wouldn't," Ray told him. "I would hate to be stuck in a house when I could see amazing things all the time."

"Bhfuil do cinnte. You're a different kind of woman, Rachel. I think you'd get on well with our life. Not that there aren't fine things to be had. When we come into port there are bonuses for all and markets where they sell fine silks and satins and sweet perfumes. The wife of the King of the Claddagh can truly dress like a queen."

"I'm sure she could," Ray agreed. Of course, she fully understood that he was making a play for her. She was flattered.

She was more than flattered. She had actually got as far as wondering what she would say if he proposed.

They danced again. This time it was a slightly faster set, but Ray felt equal to the challenge after seeing what the Doctor could do. She let Ó Máille whirl her around in a reel. He held her tightly and she was glad of it. If he had let her go, she would have spun right off the dance floor and into the crowd of non-dancers around the walls.

When they were done she was breathless and smiling. She hardly noticed that Ó Máille was taking her away from the party and up onto the outside deck where they would be alone.

She wasn't scared. She was no naïve girl who had never taken a walk with a man. She knew how to take care of herself. But she was a little surprised at how quickly things had developed. Here she was standing at the prow of the boat looking out across the glorious starfield with a handsome man who was clearly interested in her.

Her conscience still nagged her about Jes, but she overruled it.

Ó Máille pointed out the most important stars, none of which Ray had ever heard of. They were still in the Milky Way galaxy, but on the opposite side of it to the solar system she was born in.

"It makes me realize how far from Earth I am with so many unfamiliar stars around me. Even in the TARDIS I don’t quite feel it as badly as standing up here like this.”

“I’m sorry to make you sad,” Ó Máille told her.

“I’m not sad. Just a bit nostalgic. Don't let’s talk about the stars. Tell me about the boats on your fleet. What are their names? They all must have names, of course?"

Calling them boats rather than spaceships helped literally to bring her back to Earth in her mind, even if the craft were still floating in the vacuum of space.

"That's the Inis Oírr, Inis Meáin and Inis Mór, Ó Máille told her, pointing to three boats with their prows painted deep red. "Named for the three Aran Islands, and skippered by the Ua Néill brothers. The three with blue keels are An Spidéal, An Cheathrú Rua and Ros an Mhíl. The one with red sails is An Cill Chiaráin. My cousin, Ó Dubhda is skipper. That one with the red and white sails is Cloch na Rón, skippered by Áine Ó Brádaigh.”

“A woman?” Ray queried. “So some of us manage the hard life?”

“Yes, but not without becoming hard, and less like a woman.”

“What do you mean by that?” Ray asked.

“If I had a wife I would do everything to ensure she did not become hard. I would keep the wind from turning her skin to leather and the sun from bleaching her hair. She would wear silks and satins and never do any kind of manual work. For her, the Rí na Chladach would be a palace of luxury.”

Ray didn’t reply to that. She was reminded of so many men that she had liked, but who had been scared away by the idea of a woman who wore leather and rode a motorbike. She had a feeling that Ó Máille was one of those sort of men. He wanted a woman who was soft and decorative, taking no part in the life of a Claddagh boat crew.

That wasn’t what she wanted from a relationship. But all the same, she found his company pleasing as he went back to naming the boats and telling her of the harbour towns of Galway they were named after. Ray listened to the charming lilt of his voice and imagined the sound of the Atlantic Ocean as it washed onto the rocky western shores of Ireland.

"I've been to Ireland," she said. "But not to Galway, just a shopping trip to Waterford."

"I've never seen the old country at all," Ó Máille admitted. "I've never even been to Earth. I was born aboard the Rí na Chladach. I've lived my life in space except when we make port to sell our minerals. But all the same, it is a good life. I have no regrets."

"I should think not," Ray answered him. “It does seem to be a fine life.”

"Rachel, do you think...." he began. He sighed deeply and drew her closer to him. Ray breathed in slowly. She knew he was going to kiss her.

He kissed her. It was a good kiss. It was a kiss that could have fitted on the front of a Mills and Boon romance novel. A tall, handsome man with his head inclined, a woman a little shorter than him, her head tilted upwards to meet him. The rigging of the ship in space and the glorious starfield beyond made for an amazing image.

“Rachel, marry me, be my Queen and stay by me aboard the Rí na Chladach as we journey between stars.”

Rachel breathed out and then took another long, slow intake of air as she prepared her answer.