At five-thirty on Wednesday Katie takes in the signs and closes the door. She helps Emma to empty the till and then she goes around the shop, straightening the shelves and sweeping the floor. She turns out the lights in the back room, and then she says goodbye to Emma and Dave and Meg with the same smile on her face she’s been using all day. It’s her play-to-the-customers smile; she uses it often, because she’s actually pretty good at her job. The pay’s acceptable and Dave is only an asshole occasionally. So when Katie loses her temper, when Katie loses her smile and starts to talk back, it’s at appropriate times and in appropriate places. Katie knows how to bottle up now. Katie knows how to take it.
Before she walks out the door she switches over from her fancy heels to plain sneakers, wincing a little, and then she walks three blocks to the bus stop while she shivers in the icy wind. By the time the bus comes Katie’s lost her smile; most days it’s standing room only, even that one seat next to the grimy old man gone, and she spends the whole half-hour ride miserable and quietly furious, legs and back and feet aching like she’s always imagined an old woman must feel. Well, shit, she’s had the menopause already.
When she gets off the bus she walks down the road for a block or so to the old record store by the corner. By the time she gets there the front door is locked and yellow light is spilling around the edges of the heavy blinds. She meets Effy out the back, in the smoker’s corner between rubbish bins and peeling fence.
Effy looks gorgeous, of course. In old jeans and ragged band shirts, hair in a messy side ponytail and worn-out cons jammed on her feet – nothing can stop Effy from looking model-perfect, ravishingly beautiful. Every week they make jokes about how many earnest teenage boys and older guys who should know better have fallen in love with her, about how many hearts Effy’s broken or men she’s made cry. Most of the time the jokes are even funny.
It’s colder out now, and Effy pulls her old cardigan tighter around herself as they walk the last block home together. They both smoke as they walk, quiet, but halfway home Effy suddenly grins and leans into Katie so they can link arms.
“Scrabble night?” she asks, voice low and wicked, their code for a night of cheap cask wine they’ll regret in the morning. They make a game out of it, drinking as they put down the tiles, making up new rules each time they play. Katie never wins, of course. Effy always ends with hundreds of points and a board strewn with words Katie needs a dictionary to understand, but it doesn’t actually matter very much. Effy only suggests Scrabble on the good nights.
On the good nights they play old children’s games, make each other laugh til they cry, turn on the telly and then tear whatever useless program’s playing to pieces. On good nights, they’ll drink and sometimes even go out to a pub or club, just for old time’s sake. Effy’s brilliant at pub trivia, and Katie’s brilliant at coming up with increasingly filthy insults about their competitors, getting more creative the drunker she gets. They’ll dress up and gatecrash parties, stumble down the street at six in the morning, still off their tits and singing loud enough to make their neighbours yell.
Those are the good nights.
On the bad nights Effy will smash plates, call Katie the cruellest things she can think of, run out on the street barefoot and half-naked in the icy cold. She disappears for days sometimes, comes home bruised and filthy and refusing to tell Katie where she’s been. Sometimes she’ll start screaming at people on the street, like she’s crazy, until Katie wants to crawl away and die of embarrassment. It’s not always so dramatic. There’ll be weeks on end of tears and self-hatred, weeks when Effy doesn’t speak at all. Sometimes Katie can’t breathe with the weight of it; can’t speak because she knows that if she starts she’ll never stop. She wants to scream at Effy sometimes, tell Effy that she’s not the only person in the world to have had awful things happen to her, tell Effy that she’s not the only person in the world who’s hurting.
Katie’s nineteen years old. Nineteen years old and she hates her stupid job and she hates that she’s still sending money to her parents every fortnight and she hates that she has no money or friends and she hates herself, hates the person she’s become. She’s not glamorous and she’s never been in love and she’s never going to have a family of her own, not ever. Katie’s never, ever, ever going to have a child.
She tells Effy this sometimes. Occasionally, to liven things up, she’ll be the one breaking things and storming out of the flat.
It doesn’t help.
She tells herself that one day things will get better; she’ll find a better job, and make more money, and her parents will get it together, and Effy will be able to let go of some of her guilt and her grief and her anger. The good nights will one day outnumber the bad. And most of the time, most nights, tonight, Katie believes it. Effy’s smiling beside her. Tonight they’re going to play Scrabble.
At the front door Katie can’t find her key, ends up groping irritably in her bag for it. She’s head down and fumbling in the dark when she hears a soft indrawn breath behind her, Effy’s delighted laugh.
“Look, Katie! It’s snowing!” She turns and looks and sure enough, the sky is full of it, thick with white. No wonder it’s so cold. Effy’s smiling brilliantly, and Katie can’t help but share in her wonder – snow this heavy in London, in December? The snowflakes catch the orange streetlights as they fall, and it’s beautiful.
Effy makes dinner that night, pasta with sauce from a jar; like Katie, it’s one of the only things she can cook. Afterwards they head outside with the dregs of the wine, to dance around and laugh themselves stupid in the soft new-fallen snow. They’re not dressed for it; Effy has raggedy jeans with her thick leather jacket, and Katie’s wearing her favourite holey old slippers underneath her dress. But it doesn’t matter, not really. It’s less than a week til Christmas. There are carols to sing.
They’ve made it down to the end of their street and are heading back the other way when they first hear the sound. Something mechanical maybe, Katie thinks absently. A truck, someone’s alarm system gone wrong. She doesn’t start to care until she realises that they’re walking towards the sound, and even then she’s sure it’s nothing, nothing important, nothing to worry about.
And then she sees it, they both see it: something blue and strange, forming out of empty air in the space next to their neighbour’s garage. Katie stares and grabs for Effy’s hand – and then she blinks and it’s there, solid and defined, an old blue phonebox. It could be any kind of old junk left lying around, it doesn’t mean anything. Surely it was just the light making it seem so strange. Surely Katie’s walked past it a hundred times before.
But when Katie blinks again, the door opens, and people – three people, how the bloody hell did three people fit inside that thing – tumble out, two plain young men in suits and a laughing, beautiful woman in a wedding dress.
Katie can remember when her life was full of weird, ridiculous moments. When she thought nothing of going halfway across town while dressed as an angel – wings and fucking fluffy white halo and everything – because Effy needed her and it was too important to change. God, Katie wonders when her life got so boring.
Beside her, Effy’s laughing. “Funny way to celebrate a wedding. Threesome in a phone box with the best man, is it?”
The dark-haired man splutters. “No! No, no, definitely not. No orgies whatsoever, in phone boxes or otherwise.”
Katie looks at him. “What, you were all three crammed up inside there just for the fun of it? Having a jolly good game of Sardines, were we?”
The dark-haired man keeps opening his mouth and closing it again, indignantly, but the woman is laughing. She’s tall and slim, red-haired, gorgeous – one of the most beautiful people Katie’s ever seen.
“Trust me,” she says, and – okay, she’s Scottish. Even her accent is gorgeous. “You wouldn’t believe us if we told you.”
Katie looks at her and draws in a breath, conscious of everything about herself – her clothes, her hair, her tired eyes, everything that makes her plain and ordinary. It’s going to make her prickly and awkward and hostile, and she knows it, and it makes her even angrier.
“What else would you possibly be doing in there?” Katie asks. It comes out harsher than she means.
“Don’t worry, we’re hardly going to judge you,” Effy drawls. She’s still smiling; probably only Katie recognises that Effy’s mocking them.
Or maybe not. The red-haired woman is eyeing them speculatively – eyeing Katie. It’s like she’s seeing straight through everything, Katie’s holey old slippers, her heavy frown, the cute little headband she’s using to keep her hair back. Maybe someone else would back down from her gaze. But she’s being pretty fucking rude, actually, and Katie matches her stare for stare. She’s tall and gorgeous, yeah, and Katie’s pretty sure she actually has just come from her wedding. There’s no mistaking that flawlessly perfect makeup, the intricate twists of her hair. It’s all a bit boring, to be honest. If it was Katie getting married – well, never mind.
“Tell you what,” the woman says slowly. “Why don’t you come over here and have a look?”
The two men both turn to look at her, sharing identical open-mouthed looks of dismay. Katie suddenly finds herself smiling.
“You sure that’s a good idea, Amy?” It’s the second man speaking, the light-haired one. There’s a kind of fond resignation in his tone that for a second reminds Katie of Emily – Emily as she used to be, back before college started, back when most of the time they were still friends.
“Oh, lighten up, Mr Pond!” The woman draws it out, teasing to the point of mockery. But her mouth is quirking up at the corners, like there’s affection there she can’t suppress. Katie has a moment of unexpected sympathy. Sometimes you feel too much, don’t want to show it, find your words coming out in ways you never meant. It can suck telling people how much you care.
It makes Katie swallow hard. Who are these people, this woman?
She still can’t stop being defensive, though. “What, you don’t trust us with your blue box? It’s made of wood, I can see why you’d be worried someone might steal it.”
At her words Effy suddenly does that thing where she collapses in on herself, all that force and strength of personality somehow crumpling away until instead she’s vulnerable, needy, lost. “Old blue boxes that can appear out of thin air are probably pretty valuable,” she says, so quietly Katie can barely hear her.
Katie freezes. Her first thought is embarrassment, disappointment; Effy’s acting crazy again, Effy’s letting people know about it. Boxes don’t appear out of nowhere. The sinking feeling is the same as always, as Katie’s throat closes up, her skin flushes, her eyes start to prickle. It’s hideous, and Katie hates it, hates it.
But the thing is, Effy’s been embarrassing Katie for a long time now. She might not like it but she can deal with it, most of the time. And her second thought, straight on the heels of the first, is – I saw it too. Not a dream, not a failure to properly notice her surroundings, nothing to do with the alcohol. Katie saw what she saw.
“Are you going to tell us what’s really going on?” she asks, surprising even herself. And then, as Effy turns to her with a wondering, delighted grin – “I saw it too. What the hell is going on with you people?”
She did see something, she realises slowly. She really, really did. And on the heels of that realisation she sees the woman – Amy – smiling at her, looking almost triumphant, pleased that – that what? That Katie and Effy are crazy enough to tell other people when they see things that really shouldn’t have happened?
The three strangers are staring at one another, a complex exchange of glances Katie can’t process.
“What harm can it do?” says Amy finally, almost challenging. “I just got married! Surely we should be celebrating, isn’t that right, Mr Pond? And it’s snowing on Christmas Eve, that’s worthy of something special.”
Katie rolls her eyes. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, love. Still another week to go.”
There’s another moment of silence; all three of the strangers are staring at Katie and Effy now, considering. And then the dark-haired man smiles. “Do you believe in fairytales?”
It’s such a random thing to say that Katie’s startled into silence. She’s used to strange things coming from Effy, not from other people.
“Come on! Fairy tales! Magic! Happy endings! All of that good stuff. Don’t you believe in it?”
Katie freezes. She couldn’t speak right now even if she wanted to. But beside her Effy just smiles, brilliant and vital and utterly fake. “Of course we do. Why wouldn’t we?” she says easily, as Katie winces. How stupid are the others, that they can't her sarcasm? It's so obvious.
But maybe only to Katie. The others beckon her and Effy towards the door of the box, smiling; and when Effy walks up to them, Katie can’t help but follow her.
The box has a door that gets unlocked with an ordinary door key, and for a second Katie feels her heart sink. Magic? Boxes appearing out of thin air? Who was she kidding? Effy’s right. They both know that fairytales aren’t real.
And then Katie hears Effy’s gasp. She comes up from behind and looks around Effy’s shoulder expecting nothing more than the inside of an old wooden phone box filled with, Katie doesn’t know, kinky sex toys or something. Not that kinky sex toys would be enough to make Effy gasp with that kind of shock.
But instead Katie can’t breathe. She can’t think, or move, or speak. Because there is something magical inside the phone box. There’s a massive room that could never fit inside the narrow little box, lit with glowing lights and shining colours. It’s beautiful, oh, it’s beautiful. It can't possibly be real, but it is.
Maybe Katie’s going crazy like Effy, or even crazier. Maybe she doesn’t care. She can’t stop staring at the world inside the box.
“Bigger on the inside, isn’t it?” says Amy, from behind and above. Katie can hear the grin in her voice.
“I think I have to sit down,” Katie says unsteadily – and does, abruptly, onto the garden wall. She’s blaming the wine for that one.
Amy comes over to her immediately. “You okay?” she asks, and then stops. With an air of embarrassment, she says, “I don’t even know your name.”
The light-haired man, her husband, says something soft under his breath that Katie doesn’t catch. It makes Amy grin enormously, though.
“Katie,” Katie says softly. “She’s Effy.”
Amy turns that smile on Katie. “I’m absolutely delighted to meet you, Katie! I’m Amy, I think you got that one, and that’s the Doctor – just the Doctor, don’t ask – and that,” she says, pointing, “is my husband Rory.” She pauses. “My husband Rory, I think I like the sound of that. We just got married, did you catch that?” She smiles, charmingly.
The Doctor – okay, no, that is ridiculous – grins. “I think I prefered Mr Pond, myself.”
Amy and Rory smirk at one another. “Definitely jealousy talking,” Rory says.
Effy’s still standing in the doorway of the box. She’s shaking, Katie realises suddenly. Probably not from cold.
“What is this?” she asks, voice just on the edge of desperate. “Who are you, what are you doing here? How is this real?” She turns to Katie. “Why aren’t you panicking?”
Katie opens her mouth – and closes it. “I don’t know.” Something about the woman, the way she's smiling at Katie, maybe. No-one's smiled like that at Katie for a long, long time.
The Doctor steps up to Effy, smiling at her brilliantly. “Well, Effy, I’m the Doctor, and this is the TARDIS, and seeing as the TARDIS travels through time and space – we’re travellers. Anywhere in the universe you want to go, the TARDIS will take you. Well, almost anywhere. Some places aren’t very nice, I don’t advise it. Argentina in the 33rd century, ugh! Definitely not advisable.”
“Sounds like the Doctor likes you,” Amy says lowly, from behind Katie, but she’s not listening. She’s looking at Effy.
“A time machine,” Effy says slowly.
“Yes! A time machine, fabulous design, takes you anywhere you could possibly imagine and many places you couldn’t. Fancy a trip?” He smiles encouragingly.
Katie watches Effy crumple in on herself.
“No,” she says.
Everybody’s frozen, staring at Effy, except for Katie. She doesn’t want to hear this, doesn’t need to hear it again. But it sounds like she’s going to anyway.
It’s not the Doctor, but Amy, who opens her mouth to speak. But Effy gets in first.
“Can you change time? Change what happened, bring back the dead? Do anything that’s actually useful?”
There’s compassion and sudden understanding spreading across the Doctor’s face. “No,” he says, very softly. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“So you're telling me I'd have to travel in time, go back, maybe, knowing that two people who loved me are going to be beaten to death? That no matter what, I can't change it? Then no,” Effy says again. Her voice is starting to waver, just a tiny bit. “Maybe one day I’ll be ready. But you come here, telling me to believe in fairytales and happy endings, when none of it is real… I can’t do this now. I have to go.”
And she turns, and she walks away. Katie feels her stomach sink; suddenly it feels heavy as lead, and there’s a painful ache tightening in her throat. But she follows Effy. She can’t, she can’t, leave Effy alone.
She doesn’t get three steps before Effy is spinning around to face her. “What are you doing?”
Katie blinks. “Going home?”
Effy just looks at her, smiling a little, that same enigmatic Effy smile. “Why?”
“You could still come with us, if you want.” Amy’s voice is very quiet. “We can take you back to this very minute, five minutes, from now. It would be like no time at all has past.”
“Really,” Katie says, challenging.
The Doctor looks down, slightly abashed. “Not always. But we’ll try.”
Katie swallows hard, against the lump in her throat. “Why?” It’s not quite what she wants to say – why me, why would you want me? Effy's the special one, so why is Amy smiling at me, so nice to me, practically flirting with me?
How can any of this possibly be real?
But Amy just smiles at her. “Why not? You look like you need a trip through the universe. Been a while since your last holiday, right?” If her voice had been too kind Katie probably would have slapped her and walked off with Effy. But there was no trace of pity or condescension in her voice.
Suddenly Katie has a memory, from back when Katie and Emily were little girls. It’s embarrassing; Katie hasn’t thought about the games they used to play for years. But when they were little, when they played together, Emily was mostly interested in things from real life. She wanted spies, and secret plots, and criminal masterminds, and to save the world from evil supervillains; but it always took place on Earth. Katie was the one who watched TV shows with aliens and rayguns, spaceships flying at warp speed and scientists battling to find the cure to deadly plagues before the clock ran out. She used to make Emily play those games all the time. Emily was the doctor on the ship, solving problems, making scientific discoveries, building anti-laser devices out of mugs and aluminium foil – but Katie was the Captain. Katie carried a raygun made of an empty hairspray bottle, and fought off aliens out to devour the Earth, and piloted her spaceship between the stars.
Katie realised suddenly that she’d kept that old bottle right up until – until they’d lost their house, down at the bottom of one of the boxes of her old stuff in the garage. It had been hot pink, with a leopard print on it, and big looping text that said Wild At Heart, which was probably deeply symbolic of some shit Katie didn’t actually care about. That was the problem with people like Effy. They thought about things too much, when sometimes all it meant was that Katie was eight years old and liked the way it sounded when you pressed the button. She’d stolen it out of her friend’s sister’s room, she remembered. Back in the days when any friend had been a thin and insipid substitute for Emily.
She looks at the three of them again, beautiful Amy in her wedding dress, the Doctor and Rory smiling beside her. She looks at the blue box, the TARDIS. It doesn’t look like much. Old, slightly battered, out of place.
It only has the whole universe inside.
Katie takes a deep breath. Amy’s smiling at her encouragingly, hopefully, like she actually cares whether a boring broke shopgirl with no boyfriend or life decides to come with them to see the universe. Like beautiful astonishing Amy Pond, who travels through space and time and saves the world and does whatever she damn well pleases, actually cares.
And suddenly Katie’s fed up with it all, with herself. Ten years ago, she’d piloted a spaceship made of armchairs and fought off aliens with a hairspray bottle. She’s never forgotten how to be brave.
Just like that, her decision’s made.
“God, you lot are useless! Hurry up, why don’t you,” she says briskly, as Amy’s smile turns delighted, warming her all the way down to her bones. She pushes her way past Amy, brushing against her just because she can. She waves goodbye to Effy, who waves back smiling, shouts that Effy better come with her next time.
And then she finally steps through the TARDIS door.
The future’s waiting for her, and Katie Fitch isn’t going to back down now.