There. The Doctor finished the upgrade of the cable hub and admired his handiwork. All the wires were tidy, perfectly coupled and even colour-coded. In other words, boring. He had thought about making some proper modifications to the TARDIS, but not being able to test them out would have been frustrating, so he ended up doing what essentially amounted to housework.
He could have gone with Rose on her visit home, but he had had it up to the eyeballs with Jackie’s hostility. Even being bored was better than another afternoon of that.
“No little trips off in the TARDIS while I’m gone,” Rose had said. And worse still, he agreed to it. What had he been thinking? Well, probably after the last time—when he popped off to ancient China for a minute to pick up some oolong tea and accidentally left her behind for two months—that she might not be so forgiving again.
But Rose hadn’t said anything about going for walks, he realised belatedly, so he pulled his jacket on and set off in the direction of the Thames. He whistled as he strode out of the estate; it seemed like the right sort of day for whistling.
An hour and a lot of whistling later he was at the Embankment. The low granite wall followed the curve of the riverbank down towards the Houses of Parliament. Smashing spot for an early summer stroll: leafy trees, lovely views, cheerful tourists, and… one teenager, sitting on the wall, smoking a cigarette, and scowling at him.
“Eh, hullo. Something the matter?”
“You’re making me nauseous,” the girl said, miming putting her fingers back her throat, just in case he didn’t quite grasp what she had said.
“How so?” He smiled and invited the challenge.
“This bloody, mister-happy-man, act you’ve going on.” She gestured vaguely at the air around her. “Stomach churning.” She put the cigarette to her lips and inhaled briskly.
“Who says it’s an act?”
She paused and peered at him, letting the smoke exit her mouth at its own lazy pace. “Takes one to know one.”
“Is that so? One what exactly?”
“Well, I don’t know about you, but with me, what you see is what you get.” He half bowed, flashed her his widest grin and then walked on. As he passed he heard her say, “If you say so.”
He turned on his heels to face her. “Go on then, tell me what’s so fake about me. I’m all ears.”
“I can see that.” She smirked as she leaned back on one arm and brought the cigarette back up to her lips, making him wait.
“They’re bad for you, you know?” he said, breaking the interminable silence. She just laughed. “Terrible to see someone so young damaging her health.”
She spoke at last. “Exactly how old do you think I am?”
He looked at her properly; she was roughly the same age as Rose, maybe a bit younger. “Eighteen?”
“My birth certificate would agree with you, although I’m not sure I would.”
“Old beyond your years?”
She finished her cigarette and flicked the butt into the river. “Something like that.”
“There are fines for littering, you know. Someone could report you.”
“Are you actually this strait-laced, or is that just more pretending?”
“I’m not pretending.”
“Just because none of these idiots can spot it, doesn’t mean I can’t. I watched you walking along the riverbank—whistling.”
“Plenty of people whistle.”
“Plenty of miserable people whistle. If you were actually happy you wouldn’t feel the need to broadcast it; you wouldn’t care what other people thought.” She looked smugly over at him from her perch.
“Well, guess what, smarty-pants? You’re wrong.”
“It’s not ‘other people’ I’m trying to convince.”
Her smile faltered, making her expression softer, sympathetic. “I can understand that.” She looked older all of a sudden.
“What about you? What are pretending to be?” the Doctor asked.
“I’ve lost count.”
“Well if you want to talk about it, I’m on my way down to get some chips. I can probably scrape together enough for a second bag. That’s if you’re interested?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, “but I could murder some chips.”
“Come on then…?”
She hopped down off the wall. “It’s Mels.”
“Come on then, Mels.”
* * *
They sat on a bench under the cover of a tree, chips in laps, and looked across at the Houses of Parliament.
“What’s making you miserable then?” Mels said.
“I thought you said you didn’t want to talk about it.”
“I don’t want to talk about me, never said anything about you. So go on, spill.”
“Cut right to the chase, don’t you?” he asked and she shrugged, unapologetic.
This was normally the point at which he’d distract someone with a fantastical tale of the stars from long ago or far into the future. He’d have their eyes wide with wonder and they’d completely forget their previous train of thought. But there was something about Mels that made him want to answer her as honestly as possible.
“My family. They…” He knew how the sentence ended, but actually speaking it was proving difficult.
“They left you?”
“No. They died.”
Mels inhaled sharply through her teeth. “Ouch. Sorry.”
“You weren’t to know.”
“Still, I need to learn when to keep my trap shut.” There was a long moment of silence before she spoke again. “I grew up in a care home. I was taken away from my parents just after I was born.”
“It wasn’t their fault; they fell in with a bad crowd. It should never have happened.” She made a tight fist with her hand then released it again.
“Do you ever see them? Your parents?”
“Yeah, all the time, but it’s not the same. I always wonder how it could have been if things were different.”
“We’re all the sum total of our experiences, so if things were different, you’d be a different person.”
“Fine by me.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Oh, I do. Whoever I ended up as, it couldn’t possibly be worse than who I am now.” Mels scowled.
“And what’s wrong with who you are now? Most people would see a bloke whistling and think, ‘What a jolly fellow,’ but—”
“’What an irritating twat,’ more like.”
The Doctor threw her a withering look and she put up a hand of apology. He continued. “—but you saw it for what it was. What’s more, you weren’t afraid to call me on it. Bright and brave, you really have no idea how rare a combination that is. And trust me on that because I’ve met a hell of a lot of people.”
Mels looked down at her chips and poked at the paper bag. “So what do you do with yourself?”
“I travel about mostly.”
“On your own?”
“For a while I did, but I have a friend now who comes with me. Rose.”
“And where’s Rose today?”
“She’s visiting home. I’m not exactly her mother’s favourite person; she thinks I lured her precious baby away. God-forbid that Rose might have a mind of her own.” He rubbed his forehead.
“So you spend all your time with a woman and put up with her nagging mum? Sounds like love.”
“Yes, it’s love. I love her as a friend.” Mels chuckled and shook her head. “Haven’t you ever loved a friend?”
“Well then, you need better friends.”
“Is she a looker, this Rose?” Mels watched his reaction to the question and then laughed. “Yep, you’ve got it bad! So what’s stopping you? Does she not love you back?”
He sighed. “She does.”
“Then what…? Wait, how old is she?”
“About your age.”
“Ah. Bit daft to let and age gap stop you though; you could be really happy. You might not even need to whistle anymore. Spare the population of London its hearing.”
“It’s more complicated than that. I don’t know how to explain it.”
He ate a few chips as he mulled it over. “Some day Rose is going to want to settle down and stop travelling, but I can’t ever stop, it’s not who I am. And even though I’ve told her that, and she says she understands, I know she’s hoping that some day I’ll change my mind.”
“So let me get this straight. She wants you—God knows why— but it’s never going to happen, and yet you’re still travelling with her?”
“She’s the only thing keeping me going.”
“That poor cow. You’re not willing to give her what she wants, but you’ll keep stringing her along just because you’re lonely. So bloody selfish.”
The Doctor tried to supress his growing annoyance, “Someday you’ll see that things aren’t always so black and white.”
“Don’t give me that, ‘you’ll understand when you grow up,’ look. I know all about loving someone enough to do what’s right for them and not myself; I do it every fucking day.”
“There’s no need to swear.”
“Actually, sometimes there is. Like when stupid bloody idiots need some sense knocked into their thick selfish skulls.”
“The truth hurts, doesn’t it?”
“And what about your truth, eh? You’re in London without a penny to your name. Where have you been sleeping? Park bench? No, no, you’re too clever for that I reckon. Bus station? Am I right?”
Mels scowled at him; he could almost hear the cogs turning in her head. Her expression soon settled into haughty disdain. “A few different ones, if you must know. Don’t want to draw attention to myself.”
The Doctor grinned and went back to eating his chips. “So, what are you running from?”
“I’m not running.” If she weren’t sitting down, she would definitely have been stamping her feet.
“Right,” the Doctor said breezily.
Mels growled in exasperation. “Fine. My mum and dad, they were… broken up for a while and they just got back together. They’re all wrapped up in each other at the moment—they’d make you bloody puke—and there’s no room for me anymore.”
“Don’t you want them to be together?”
“Yes, I want them to be together—don’t be thick—but someday soon they’re going to go off to do their own thing and they’ll forget about me.”
“You can’t know that.”
Mels sighed and looked sadly out over the river. “Anyway, enough about me. What about this Rose? Have you got a photo? I always like to see a pretty face.”
“I don’t actually.”
“You’re hopeless, do you know that?”
“Ha, I’ve often thought it,” he said, glancing over to Mels who was still staring at the passing boats but was smiling now.
A distant tinny beat invaded their comfortable silence. “What’s that music?” the Doctor said, straining to hear.
Mels hopped to her feet, patted her pockets and retrieved her ringing phone. “Macarena. Private joke. It’s my mum.”
She stepped over to stand by the wall, almost out of earshot but not quite. She kicked at the base of the wall and picked up. “Hello?” The volume of the answer that came caused her to pull the phone away from her ear. She eventually brought it back to her face. “Calm down, I’m fine… London.” Mels tore the phone away from her ear again and swore silently before bringing it back. “I fancied a break, okay…? With friends… You don’t know them… Well, I must have accidentally switched it off or something…”
She listened for a moment and her demeanour turned from defensive to sheepish. “Oh, I’m sorry, tell him I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” She pulled her free arm around to hold herself. “I’ll be home tonight… I miss you too… Okay, see you soon.”
She hung up and then wrapped her second arm around her torso, hugging herself, and looked thoughtfully out over the water and the boats and the milling tourists. She inhaled deeply before turning back to the bench and the Doctor.
“Right, so I’m off then. Thanks for the chips.”
“Bad news from home?”
“Oh no, just my dad. He missed one of his shifts because he was out looking for me and now he’s in trouble. What an idiot.” She smiled.
“Still think they’re going to forget you?”
She kept smiling, but a trace of sadness seeped in and she shrugged. “See you then… I never got your name.”
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose not,” she said and turned to leave.
“Wait, do you need bus fare?”
She whipped a piece of paper from her pocket, “I got a return ticket this time. Mum would throttle me if I stole another bus.” She raised an eyebrow and grinned at him.
He chuckled, “Oh, you’re bad.”
“You have no idea,” she said and strode off.
The Doctor smiled. Takes one to know one.
He stood up, gathered the empty chip packets and put them in the bin, before setting off back to the TARDIS. Or maybe he’d call in and trouble Jackie for a cup of tea and a biscuit. And while he was there he might see if she had a photo of Rose he could have, so he wouldn’t have to be quite so hopeless.
He sauntered off, not much in the mood for whistling anymore.