writer, Big Finish Writer, The Axe & Grindstone
I always said I would leave Tayborough, but the time never seemed right.
I mean – and don’t get me wrong – it’s come up in the world lately. The off-licence on the corner painted its shutters yellow last week, and the council’s got some new flower-potting project on the go. There’s even a new M&S food store just opened on the parade.
But it’s all still grey.
It’s all still steeped in the damp haze of a wet Monday Morning, when it seems the rain hasn’t stopped falling in months. Water glistens on the grey concrete that connects the estate, collecting in pools that reflect the grey skyline, and the grey clouds stretch on towards an ever-grey future.
I always said I would leave Tayborough before it kills me.
But the time has never seemed right.
There are two types of kid on our estate, they say, but then they say a lot of things round here. Both types terrify me in different ways. Me and Justin are going to have kids ourselves at some point – well, that’s the plan.
There’s a lot of kids round here. Well, there were.
Most of the parents on the estate end up being parents by accident and, thinking about it, that off-licence with the yellow shutter has a lot to answer for, but what people don’t realise is that for me and Justin it’s different.
Guys like us have to choose. You choose the right time, you choose the right place. You choose the right future and the right world for the kid you want to adopt. It’s all about choice, and I’m very, very good at putting off that sort of thing.
I mean. Would you choose to bring up a child in Tayborough?
Would you choose to give your child two options in life? Right or left? North or South?
Two types of kid.
The Baba and The Lost.
The rain started about a month ago. I remember it well. The night had seemed that little bit darker than normal, and the cold wind bit through my warmest jacket as if it were made of paper. I’d got off the bus and braced myself for the walk across the bridge where I knew they’d be waiting. There’s no avoiding them, and all you can do is to hold your head as high as you can and refused to be afraid. But with the rain lashing down, it had forced my gaze towards the pavement. I’d felt cowered by the weather and as I gripped my collar tight, I’d felt like the rain had somehow shrunk me. Because I was walking faster it must have given them the impression I was scared.
Now, they’re only words, but they’re words outside my home – our home – and as such they seep into the walls over time. Normally, I would have stood up to Craig and his chavvy little mates. Normally, I would have pulled myself up to full height and told them I refuse to be intimidated.
Normally, I would have reported them for tagging the large blue box at the entrance to the underpass.
Police property, it says.
Pull to open, it says.
There’s help available, it says, but of course there’s nothing of the sort.
The police don’t come unless you’ve been missing for days. They certainly don’t come because the local kids throw their words around like weapons.
So back home I’d gone, bruised and battered without a single punch being thrown, and I’d slammed the door behind me and cursed the unrelenting rain.
Someone’s put up another poster on the Police Box. I reckon the thing’s a work of art - a rubbish Banksy or something that’s supposed to make a statement about how we’re always protected, watched and safe.
Our neighbours have covered up the tags and the obscenities with pictures of the missing, and as I walk past I catch a glimpse of a new one. The kid looks sweet, this time, and I feel for the girl’s family as I walk pass the box and the light of the dying day begins to fade.
There’s a glove on the railing, beyond the underpass.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how you always find one, solitary, piece of clothing left behind on the side of the road. This one’s a left-hander and pink – a small woollen mitten that’s soaked with the rain from last night. You see them all the time: a single glove, a single shoe, a single piece of clothing that’s waiting for the child to run back and claim it. I often think it’s weird how they don’t notice its gone until it’s too late – as if the family were so distracted they didn’t realise their little girl was dancing in puddles wearing just her socks.
But there the glove sits, sodden and waiting for a child that’ll never return. I walk past, as I always do, and turn the corner.
There’s another one, just sitting on the railing not a hundred yards from its partner. The same glove, in the same position, with the same sense of longing and despair. I’m about to walk past this one too, but something makes me pause.
There’s a chill – and not the one which precedes the storm I know isn’t far from breaking. Something’s different. Something’s strange and there’s a distinct bitter taste in the air as if the sky was tainted with rust. The never-ending noise of the estate - the cars, the sirens and shouts – seems to deaden and the world sounds distant and mute. For a single moment there is nothing. No one but me and this glove, alone in the grey, and as I reach out to touch it I realise too late that it’s a left-handed glove just like its twin a moment ago.
The voice is sudden, broad and deep, thick and Scottish. It says one word. The only thing I can hear. The only deafening sound in an entire world made of silence.
I snatch my hand back, the shock surging through my arm as the sound crashes back into life around me. The noise is invasive and it takes everything I have not to clasp my hands to my ears and leg it back home, but I do what I always do – I count to ten and refuse to be afraid.
What the hell just happened?
Who was that man, and where did his voice come from?
I reach out to touch the glove once again, but stop myself just in time, trying to figure out what unnerves me so much and then I remember.
It’s not the twin from the one around the corner.
It’s not the confirmation of a careless child dropping her stuff one by one. It’s another left-hander, identical to the first.
It’s the same impossible mitten, left alone on the railing, waiting for me to find it.
No, no, no, no, no. I turn and I walk on, shoving my hands in my pockets and striding away and I sense it staring into my soul as I leave. I feel – no, I know – it wants me to go this way but I don’t care because the faster I walk the further away it becomes until the thing is distant and I allow myself to glance back over my shoulder.
Out of sight.
I look at my watch, controlling my breathing over thirty seconds to bring myself back into the calm. It’s fine, Drew. There’s nothing wrong, Drew. This happens to everyone after a while, but no one talks about it so its normal. I close my eyes, take another deep breath, and open them once more.
There are two gloves on the railings before me. Left-handers. Identical. Pointing towards the corner.
And before I can think, the Scotsman becomes my world.
‘Drew. It is Drew, isn’t it? You all sound alike, so I take a guess most of the time. Follow the gloves, Drew. I need your help. Don’t think, don’t argue, and most of all don’t twitter about it. Just hurry.’
His voice snaps away, and it no longer feels as if I’m deep underwater. I spin around, looking for him but I’m alone on the street. I stare at the two gloves pointing me on, and it only takes a second for me to decide. Two choices, as with all things, around here.
Left or right. North or south. Home or onwards towards the fear.
And I sprint.
I run in the direction the gloves are pointing. There’s no thinking, no regrets and no second thoughts. I don’t know what it means, but I know I have to follow them – I have to trust the mad Scotsman who invades my thoughts and bleeds into my mind. Don’t think. Don’t argue. He needs my help, and I’ve never been surer about anything in my life.
I run around the corner and it’s there again. A glove on a railing, pointing me on. Down the hill where the road meets the park, across the grass which sinks underfoot. Onwards, panting, forwards with no idea why I’m running or where I’m going. I sweep past the off-licence with the yellow shutter and dart across the road, shouting an apology to the cyclist who swerves just in time.
There’s another glove on a railing – no, two, three, four, each one two railings away from the last – and as they build in number I know I’m getting closer to the Scotsman and the truth. The gloves are everywhere now, on every spike on every railing, each pointing towards the alley where the community centre sits with its peeling paint and broken windows.
I skid to a halt, blood pounding in my ears, praying he hasn’t heard my flat feet on the gravel. I hate myself for being scared of a kid – thirteen, fourteen – but I’m not in the mood for self doubt right now. He’s transfixed, arm outstretched towards the woollen glove closest to him. Even from this distance, and I’m keeping my distance, I can see from his eyes that the Scotsman’s in town.
Slowly, carefully, I walk up beside him.
His hand remains outstretched toward the glove, but his face slowly turns toward me, ashen and glistening with sweat. His eyes are marbled with a white milk and he blinks in quick succession, confused and unseeing.
‘He’s here,’ he whispers in a voice which seems so alone and so scared I’d hardly believe it was his at all. ‘He says… he says I can help and I want to but I don’t know how.’
I look at Craig, and back towards the glove. Conscious he may lash out at any moment, I reach towards his arm and lower it. The milk fades from his eyes and as he staggers I take a few steps back. I’m not stupid. I know this kid. I’ve seen what he can do.
He raises his palms to rub his eyes before he stares at me and I know he’s thinking how to react. Does he run? Does he lash out? Does he pull his mobile from his pocket and call his mates to sort the bloke who dared to touch him?
Instead, he speaks with a low, calm voice.
‘You know how to help them, mate? Do you know what’s going on?’
I take a moment before I reply. ‘I know as much as you do. Did you hear the voice?’
He pauses, glancing at the pavement. ‘The Scottish bloke? Yeah. He was…’ He waves his hands by his temples.
‘I know. I heard him too. It’s why I’m here.’
There’s an awkward silence as we size each other up. Him, the kid who owns the estate. Me, the guy who ran from the rain and the taunts.
The girl’s scream hits us both hard, and before we know it we’re running. Of course we are. Towards the scream, knocking back the red doors with their peeling paint until we skid to a halt in the main hall.
I can’t take this in.
Craig looks towards me with a look of pure panic and I shake my head. No. No, I don’t know, either.
There’s… something… where the floor should be. A hole… a portal, vortex, something where the floor should be. It’s blue, five or six metres wide and spinning with energy, tainting the air once again with the taste of rust. It crackles upwards towards the ceiling tiles and… oh…
The Scotsman, suspended above it, his arms outstretched either side and each wrist bound by a circle of the same blue light. It has to be him. There’s no other person it could be.
‘You took your time!’ he shouts. ‘I wasn’t expecting you to stop for line dancing or a game of Ludo. I’m in spot of bother here!’
Craig steps forward, taking off his baseball cap to scratch his forehead. ‘Who are you, and what is all this…’
‘I’m the Doctor, and I’m running out of time. They’ll be here in a minute and if I’m not standing right beside you when they arrive they’ll think you’re me and that’s very bad for my reputation. I mean, can you imagine? I’ve looked young before, but a spotty kid who can’t dress himself?’
As Craig swears at the man, I step up beside him.
‘What do we have to do? We heard a scream.’
His eyes bore into me. ‘I know,’ he says, ‘I was there. Why are you telling me things I already know?’
‘Behind you, near the wall by the bar, there’s something I need. Small, blue metal thing. You’ll know it when you see it. Hurry!’
The hole in the floor – the portal – begins to spin faster and another scream fills the room. It starts to expand, pulling the floor into the depths of wherever-to-god it goes. The Doctor’s right. We don’t have much time. Soon it’ll expand to fill the whole room. And then? God, will it keep growing? What if it doesn’t stop?
‘Drew!’ the Doctor shouts. ‘Get a move on and give Not-Drew some help!’ I snap back to the moment, where Craig’s already at the bar. He’s shining the torch from his phone under a bank of heavy stacked chairs nearby.
‘It’s Craig!’ the kid calls back.
‘Same thing. Have you found it yet?’
I run over to him as he cocks his head towards the nearest stack.
‘Gimme a hand to get these chairs out, will you mate?’ he says. There’s something at the back.’ I nod, and the two of us start chucking them away from the wall. He’s right. There, tucked away in the corner is a small device. I dive for it, the blue metal feeling cold in my hand.
‘That’s it,’ shouts the Doctor. ‘Now point the screwdriver at these bonds and think about releasing me.’
‘Just do it, Drew!’
I do what he says, thrusting the device into the air with my right arm. As I stretch out, the top third pulsates with a blue light and, as it buzzes, the Doctor’s shackles fizz with an angry blue spark before burning themselves to nothing. He falls to the floor with a thump, but is up straight away, snatching the device from my fist.
‘Thanks,’ he says as he dusts himself down. ‘Now it needs three of us to close this portal and bring them back so we’re going to have to work together. Do you understand?’ Craig and I glance at each other, neither of us sure. ‘I said, do you understand?’
‘Yes.’ My reply is emphatic. I have no idea what’s happening or who the Scotsman is, but I know that its moments like this who define who you are. And I’m with the Doctor. As is Craig, who nods.
‘Good. Now the Forfari delegate won’t be here for long, so the seconds will count. You’re both here because of your potential.’
Craig frowns. ‘Our what?’
‘Keep up, Not-Drew. Your potential. The Forfari are time-sensitives. They feed off the positive energy of a person’s timeline. All the days and months, all the hopes and dreams. It’s like catnip to a kitten – very harmless – but one of them’s gone rogue. He’s been keeping children! Farming them so he’s got his own private drug supply. And I didn’t stand for it. I led him straight to his captors, and now – hostage return.’
‘What are you talking about, potential?’ Craig shouts, as the noise of the portal rises in pitch. ‘I ain’t got no potential, Doctor.’ He waves his hand towards the growing hole in the floor. ‘I seen some crazy stuff in my time, but you’re talking nonsense.’
‘Trust me,’ the Doctor says, his voice now grave and deep. ‘You have more than anyone else in this town.’
He waves his “screwdriver” at Craig.
‘It’s why I was able to use the portal to forge a psychic link with you. Reach out. Touch your mind. You have a future you can scarcely dream about, but the Forfari, they know it’s going to be great. I can’t see it like they can. I can’t taste it like they can but…’
He stops the screwdriver from buzzing and holds it up to his ear. He pauses for a moment, and smiles.
‘Oh, Not-Drew. Music. Not my kind of music, but music all the same. Hope and joy, love and life. Passion and feeling and the one tiny thing that connects a million strangers. All borne from an old pair of decks in your bedroom. All borne from you. Potential.’
Craig keeps his eyes locked on the Doctor’s and it’s hard to read the kid’s face. He seems confused, disbelieving but open to being convinced. He looks as if he’s about to say something but as he opens his mouth the community centre shakes once more, and the portal opens wider. It’s almost at the walls.
The Doctor spins towards it, as the girl’s scream rings out again. ‘Soon!’ he cries. ‘Drew, to the far wall. Not-Drew, stay where you are. We need to be equidistant!’
I run around the side of the hall, leaping over the chairs which lie strewn at its edges and skid to a halt roughly a third of the way around. As the Doctor does the same, he takes a y-shaped box from the inside pocket of his dark black coat, each end pointing towards the three of us.
‘Now this probably won’t hurt a lot.’
He presses a button on the box, and a white light shoots from each end towards us. I shout for him to stop, but it’s too late and it hits me straight in the chest. I try to scream but there’s no breath, no air and no strength left in my lungs. I look over and see Craig and the Doctor impaled with the same white light, their faces contorted with the same breathless pain. The Doctor lets the box out of his hands, but instead of falling through the growing hole in the floor it travels across the beams of light, as if pulled along on string.
…and then darkness.
No. Not darkness, although the normality of the room makes it seem so. The portal is gone. And in its place…
A hooded man, with his back to me, facing the Doctor.
A little girl. The poor little girl from the posters on the blue box.
The Doctor speaks first.
‘On behalf of the peoples of Earth, I greet you and bear you no ill will. Have you apprehended your prisoner?’
The hooded man’s voice crackles like fire, and I’m glad I can’t see his face. Every syllable makes me flinch, but a sharp look from the Doctor prevents me from running.
‘The renegade. Is in our custody. The produce. Has been returned. You delayed. Our transaction.’
‘Well,’ says the Doctor, scratching the back of his ear. ‘I got tied up a little. You know how these things happen. A little booby trap, but my friends helped me out.’ He nods at the little girl. ‘And what about this one, eh?’
The hooded man hovers his hand over the girl’s head, thick ashen white fingers protruding from his sleeve. He looks as if he’s playing with invisible threads – like the girl’s a puppet he’s unwilling to give up.
‘This was. His last. So much. Potential…’
The Doctor’s eyes glare with a strength I’ve never seen before. ‘You will release her and honour our agreement. I warn you, if I have to come over there…’
The hooded man considers, and the sentence remains unfinished. We all understand and he nods, returning his hand to his side. The girl snaps out of whatever dream she’s in, looks around and runs over to Craig. The room begins to shake, as a smaller portal begins to swallow the hooded man.
‘Be well. Time Lord. Your future. Is our feast.’
And he’s gone.
The Doctor claps his hands. ‘Well now, that’s all very good. Everyone safe back home.’ He looks at the little girl. ‘And who might you be?’ he asks, crouching down to her line of sight. She shakes her head.
‘She’s the little Baba – Anna - that went missing from Dixon House.’ I say, my voice a little shaky.
The Scotsman frowns. ‘Baba?’
My face flushes a little. ‘Sorry. Seems silly now. They say there are two types of kid on our estate. You got the Baba – the young and the innocent with their whole lives ahead of them. The ones you think could grow up to be anyone, or anything. And then…’ My eyes flick to Craig for a second, then return to the floor. ‘Then you’ve got the Lost. The kids you don’t see with any kind of future at all.’
The Doctor takes a step forward, his voice soft with a hint of rebuke. ‘Ah, but the Forfari don’t think that way and neither do I.’ He pokes me gently in the chest. ‘And neither, I think, do you anymore.’
Craig takes the little girl’s hand. ‘What was with the gloves?’
‘When a child is brushed by the Forfari – if only for a split second – they leave behind an imprint of a possession to keep their link strong. A bit of clothing on a wall. A lost shoe. Perhaps a stray toy they loved. The psychic energy in this transaction enhanced their appearance here. So the next time you see a lonely glove by the road, just think. It could be a message the Forfari believe the next Picasso has just walked by…’
Craig considers for a moment. ‘Right… But seriously, though. Thanks.’
‘For telling it straight. No one’s told me that before. No one’s seen it in me. No one’s made me believe it, at least.’
The Doctor smiles. ‘Your potential’s your own, Craig. Make the most of it. And inspire people to make the most of theirs.’
The kid stands tall at the first mention of his name, but this time it’s not to make himself more intimidating, nor more impressive. He nods towards the Scotsman, takes Anna’s hand, and walks her out of the hall.
‘And me?’ I ask.
He raises his eyebrow. ‘Enough with the Baba and the Lost nonsense, for a start. But you know what your potential is, Drew. You don’t need me to tell you the lasting effect you’ll have on someone’s life.’
I pause, look into his eyes, and understand. I ask one final question. ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m just like you. I’m just like Craig. Just a man with the potential to do great things and the time in which to try them out, one day at a time.’
I always said I would leave Tayborough, but the time has never seemed right.
Now, I think I never will.
It’s my home. It’s my family’s home.
The police box has gone – I guess the council ran out of funding - and it doesn’t rain as much now. It’s funny how a place seems to change the more you look at it. I once thought Tayborough was grey, but it’s anything but. It’s teeming with life and it’s teeming with laughter. Me and Craig bump into each other from time to time, but there are no words like weapons any more. He’s stopped hiding behind them. Rumour has it he could be the Next Big Thing.
So, would you choose to bring up a child in Tayborough?
You know what? Yeah. Yeah, I would.
The Doctor was right. I knew exactly what he was talking about. The impact I’d have on someone’s life.
So we took the plunge. No more procrastinating. No more waiting for the right time.
And so our daughter, Lily, turns two this month. Me and Justin need to seriously start thinking about schools. There’s more than two options for a kid growing up here. There’s no right or left, north or south, Baba or Lost.
There’s just us, and the lasting legacy of that one day with the Doctor.
Doctor Who: The Baba and the Lost (c) Paul Phipps-Williams 2017. All rights reserved. 'Doctor Who,' its characters and references all belong to the British Broadcasting Corporation. No copyright infringement or claim of ownership is intended.