His brain was pure cacophony, like a busy city, screeching tires, automobile accidents, a thousand whistling teakettles, dial-up modems, ringing telephones, crying babies and a black hole’s gravity reverberating simultaneously inside his skull.
Scribbled equations marked the chalkboard he kept staring at, but they didn’t make sense. There wasn’t any chalk on the shelf below it. Worse, his coat pocket was empty. No box of chalk to sniff for reassurance. Being without its weight and scent felt wrong. Its emptiness left hole in his consciousness, leaving him incapable of keeping noise at bay.
He ran his fingers through his fluffy gray hair. Sometimes that helped. It didn’t this time.
Not having chalk in his pocket meant not being able to think straight. Why, why, why did he take the box out of his coat pocket and hand it to her when she said she was out? He gave her his precious chalk. His pocket chalk. How foolish could he be?!
Thunder battered his skull. No, wait, that was just the wheeze of the TARDIS dematerializing and rematerializing. Sometimes it took matters into its own...well it didn’t have hands, but it took matters into itself for his sake.
The Doctor looked down at his electric guitar, ice blue eyes lidded in dismay. No chord sounded right. Its strings did not vibrate against his fingers how he wanted them to. His thoughts refused to congeal with the racket going on inside his head. He stuck his long thumbnail-- the last nail he hadn’t bitten down to the quick-- into his mouth as he paced a circle around the central control console.
Calm down, calm down... The thought ran through his mind like a mantra barely audible over the noise in his brain cells. Can’t calm down, I don’t have any chalk...
His teeth broke through his thumbnail. Reflex prompted him to bite down and pull, breaking a chunk clean off. Sharp pain caught him off guard. He spat out the now-useless thumbnail and glared at yet another nail bitten to the quick. Angry red skin shone where the white tip of a thumbnail once existed.
No more nails to chew off until they grew back. The Doctor couldn’t remember how long it took fingernails to grow. He entertained the idea of chewing other people’s fingernails off, yet immediately cast it away. That wasn’t appropriate.
A sideways tug halted his motion. All his pacing wound the guitar’s cord around the central console. Annoyed, he reversed his path until the wire uncoiled. Hissing blasted through him like a waterfall against his eardrums. He glowered at the guitar amp he forgot to turn off and twisted the volume dial until it clicked. The hiss ceased.
The TARDIS door creaked open as the Doctor set his guitar down atop the amp and gave his black coat a frustrated tug. A vain attempt to make the exaggerations in all his senses settle. He smelled the peach of Clara’s shampoo as if she was right in front of him when her footsteps barely crossed the doorway.
“Fancy that, you come popping up right when you’re on my mind,” she chided playfully, “I realized you didn’t have any chalk left under the chalkboard, so I thought I should replace the box I--“ Her teasing demeanor immediately halted at his lack of a response. “That was your pocket chalk, wasn’t it?”
So nice of her to finally notice! It only took two desperate texts that amounted to gibberish and a phone message of him hanging up. But no, it wasn’t her fault. It was his fault.
Exactly twenty-three hours and fifty-five minutes ago-- Clara’s time, not his-- he took the box of chalk out of his pocket with his back to her and set it on the console. She was in a hurry and didn’t realize the importance of it staying close by. He assumed she would only take one piece, but she walked away with the box.
Rather than chase her, he figured he could procure more on his own. He spent thirty hellish minutes walking around Cardiff in 1996, looking for a chalk store. Earth had stores for everything except chalk, it seemed. The combination of frustration and endless city noise sent him rushing back to the TARDIS-- and the TARDIS took him right to the school utility closet at precisely the moment Clara would walk by it.
And there he was, a mess of jangled nerves and incorrigible ire.
The Doctor glanced at his young companion. At her brown hair, the inverted triangle of her white blouse visible within her black cardigan and her red plaid skirt. He refocused his attention on the invisible spot between her eyebrows. She was looking at him. Studying him. Her large brown eyes did that inflating thing he found annoying, yet endearing.
If he locked eyes with her, he knew her gaze would plow through him like a drill. Usually, he could handle it. Today, he might as well stare at the sun. Actually, staring at the sun would be less uncomfortable because the sun couldn’t look back. Then again, he wasn’t keen on going blind any time soon...
It suddenly occurred to him that she asked a question. His mind spun and groped for a response.
“I’m fine,” he said. The first words he could make his mouth say. He couldn’t be sure how long looking at her was socially appropriate, so he dropped his gaze to feign picking lint off his coat.
Clara stopped at the console and set down a plastic bag. Its crackle sounded like an explosion in the quietness.
“That isn’t what your thumb says,” she indicated his reddened, still-stinging thumb.
He stuffed that hand into his coat’s side pocket, rested the other one flat on the TARDIS console and made every effort to avoid her eyes. A flick of his tongue wet his lips. The colorful buttons on the control panel were quite fascinating and not as overpowering as another’s gaze. He could feel Clara’s presence pinging his consciousness like a personal-space radar signal.
Everything in his mind reached a crescendo. Maddening-- it kept drowning his thoughts out. His mouth once again produced the same words he stated before, only now his voice carried a faint note of desperation.
He curled his hand in a fist as if to contain the eruption wanting to take place inside him. Irritably tapping his knuckles on the console did not offer the relief he hoped for, nor did pursing his lips.
But Clara understood. Clara always understood. She rummaged carefully in the plastic bag to avoid rattling it too much. The Doctor heard her set four things on the console near his tightly clenched fist. His ears picked up the subtle scrape of cardboard. He inhaled, and...
Chalk. Clara brought him four brown boxes of plain white chalk. She just opened one to let the smell permeate the TARDIS interior. His nose drank in the scent like parched soil absorbing rain and the raging forest fire in his brain started to douse itself.
The invisible force-field chalk placed between him and sensory madness surrounded him. No more hole in his consciousness. Everything in time and space stopped pressing inward on his brain.
“I didn’t realize I took your pocket chalk, Doctor. I’m sorry, I hope it didn’t trouble you too much,” Clara said, keeping her voice low. She used the moment he was focused on the chalk to take something else from the plastic bag.
“I’ll leave you alone for a bit, but first--” she deftly reached around, clasped something behind his neck and stepped back, “--there you go.” Her eyebrows rose with her smile. She seemed...pleased.
The Doctor felt the satin cord on his neck and looked down at the black mushroom-shaped thing dangling onto his chest. It matched his holey sweater.
“What’s this?” he asked. Finally, his mouth could say something else!
“It’s called a No Gloom ‘Shroom. It’s meant to occupy your mouth and I’m hoping it helps you not chew up your nails.” Then she set something white next to the boxes of chalk. “And here are those note cards you wanted.”
The idea of having the note cards to remind him of simple social exchanges was a little embarrassing. Interpersonal manners between him and acquaintances were annoying interruptions to his thought process while sussing out a time-space mystery.
Humans kept their tiny little minds so wrapped up in social etiquette that breaking any of their countless invisible rules resulted in anger, hurt feelings or someone taking offense. Not having to think about bothersome social frivolousness too much took a small weight off his mind.
He thumbed through the note cards to get an idea of what they said.
‘I completely understand why it was difficult not to get captured.’
‘I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t care.’
‘It was my fault, I should have known you didn’t live in Aberdeen.’
‘No-one is going to be eaten / vaporized / exterminated / upgraded / possessed / mortally wounded / turned to jelly. We’ll all get out of this unharmed.’
‘I’m very sorry for your loss. I’ll do all I can to solve the death of your friend / family member / pet.’
And those were just the top five. He crinkled the bridge of his nose and tucked them into his coat’s breast pocket.
“Will those work for you?” she asked.
He faked eye contact by staring at her eyebrows. “It’s a start.”
“Good,” Clara checked the time on her phone, “I have class in fifteen minutes, so I’ll leave you to sort yourself out. Will I see you later?”
“Will I see you later? I-- yes, yes, of course,” The Doctor spoke quickly in attempt to fill in the conversational gap where words were supposed to go. Thank you was not keen on passing through his lips despite feeling grateful, so he substituted it with, “Don’t be late.”
“You’re welcome,” she replied to the words he couldn’t say rather than the ones he actually said. Her smiling presence retreated and the TARDIS door creaked shut.
Finally, the personal space radar in his head stopped blaring alarms. He could relax.
The Doctor bounced the mushroom pendant in his hand a few times, feeling its weight and plastic-like texture. Scanning it with his sonic sunglasses revealed food-grade silicone. Clara left the baggie it came in on the console. Stimtastic, the label said.
Shrugging, he popped the stalk end into the corner of his mouth while he slid the open box of chalk into his coat pocket with the note cards. The pleasant sensation of chewing registered when he set the other three chalk boxes in a neat row on the shelf below his chalkboard. Like biting his nails, except his teeth weren’t cracking it apart.
By the time he picked up his electric guitar again, sat atop the amp and started playing, he realized he was grinding his teeth against this perfect, wonderful thing. Keeping it around his neck and sticking it in his mouth would be too obvious, so he started to jam while waiting for the solution to percolate up.
Every strum of the strings was pleasure on his fingertips. Their vibrations coursed through his bones to meet the music entering his ears. He played the first notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Then he reversed the notes and it became the riff for Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water. He shredded the same sets of notes repeatedly for the sole pleasure of sound. Rocking his weight back and forth sent wisps of chalk scent up into the air and provided the perfect metronome to stay in tempo.
He paused to look down at his left hand. Just like that, the solution arrived. He unclasped the No Gloom ‘Shroom pendant without taking it out of his mouth and glanced up at the chalkboard. The equations made sense again, and so did the rest of the universe.
"Thank you, I need this coffee. I was up late grading papers,” Clara told the Doctor the next morning. She went on to talk about the essays her students wrote and lamented how children weren’t retaining proper grammar anymore.
The Doctor leaned on the counter in the cozy kitchen, still wearing the same outfit as ‘yesterday’ because to him it was a ten minute trip in the TARDIS. Eight of those involved procuring the coffee from an underwater Starbucks on Europa in the year 3015. Honestly, those coffee shops were everywhere.
He covered his mouth with one hand and arched a bushy silver eyebrow. Tugging on his coat released a puff of chalk scent from his pocket. He breathed in and pondered.
Something about Clara looked different. It wasn’t her fluffy purple bathrobe-- he only knew it was fluffy because she gave him hideous green slipper socks made of the same fantastic material and he would never admit he sometimes wore them under his proper socks just to feel them. But what did she change? Her face had less color than usual, and she styled her hair strangely. The longer she talked, the more he noticed it.
“You’ve painted your face differently,” he remarked in the middle of her speech, “Did you style your hair in the dark?”
Clara paused and sipped her coffee. He noticed the casual question didn’t offend her like it used to.
“I’ve only been awake for ten minutes. I’m not wearing any makeup at all and I haven’t combed my hair yet. So anyway, this one essay had--” she paused and cocked her head, “--are you chewing your fingernails again?”
The Doctor turned his hand around and uncurled his fingers, revealing the stem of the No Gloom ‘Shroom poking out from beneath his sleeve. He’d fastened it to a clear key chain coil he could easily slip on and off his wrist. Now he could appear to be thinking and nibble to his dual hearts’ content.
Clara’s face flushed faintly pink, and it looked more fetching than the powdery stuff he saw her brush on once.
He waggled his eyebrows at his own cleverness and put his hand back where he had it, “Forget about the essays for awhile. How about a New Year’s party?”