Good jobs are hard to come by when you’ve got an unexplained eighteen-month gap on your CV. Not to mention unbearable migraines, fits of fainting and the occasional impulse to construct a faster-than-light star drive out of kitchen goods.
“Can you just tell me what you were doing all that time?” the woman from the temp agency asked in despair.
“I told you, love, you weren’t well,” Sylvia said when Donna repeated the question.
“Hmmph,” the agency woman snorted when Donna told her that. “I’m starting to suspect you ran off to become an art thief.”
Eventually Donna found a job; PA at a company which provided stunt cars to television companies. Building cars, then giving them to people to crash? Yeah, no wonder this place was going bust.
Donna was told at her interview that the job would probably only last a couple of months, just until the company closed down. Still, it’s a pay cheque for as long as it lasts. And no one paid much attention to her, which meant she could sometimes get her head down in the staff room if she felt one of her migraines coming on.
That’s what Donna was doing when she overheard two of the boys from the garage talking about the woman who’d just bought the company, some aristocrat or other.
Donna lifted her head from her arms and said, “What, an actual aristocrat? Lady something or other, tiny dog in handbag, talks like she’s got a plumb in her mouth aristocrat?”
Keith shrugged. “Dunno, haven’t met her. All that matters to me is that I get to keep my job.”
A week passed before Donna met the new owner. She was at her desk typing up the minutes from this morning’s meeting (if the office wasn’t shutting she might as well do some work) when Christina de Souza made her appearance.
“Lady Christina, actually.”
“What are you the lady of, then?”
“Oh, it’s quite a big estate.”
Christina did talk like she had a plumb in her gob, but at least she didn’t carry a tiny dog in her handbag.
Christina didn’t reappear at the office for weeks. Rumour had it that she’d only bought the company because she was looking for somewhere to store her red double-decker bus. Rich people, eh?
Donna could feel the beginning of a migraine pinching behind her eyes. The tablets the last specialist had given her were useless. The only thing that did any good at all was finding somewhere dark and quiet to have a bit of a sleep.
Donna left her desk and wandered through the back to the garages, which were always nice and cool and helped her head. And – what do you know? Apparently posh girl really was keeping a bus back here. Bit of a raggedy looking bus, actually. You’d think that if she could afford to, you know, buy a bus and then kit it out with those posh wheel trims and tinted windows then she could afford to get some panel beaters in to make it look like it hadn’t just collided with a low bridge.
But those tinted windows - it’d be lovely and dark in there. Just a quick lie down, just for half an hour or so, she’d even work late to make up the time.
Donna hopped onto the bus - just a quick lie down.
Curled up on the backseat, Donna woke with a start. She sat bolt upright with her heart in her mouth and that feeling you get when you’re convinced you’ve missed your stop.
She immediately felt daft. This bus was parked in the garages at work, she couldn’t have missed her stop, it hadn’t bloody moved.
She walked towards the door and saw Christina de Souza sitting at the wheel. The aristocracy, eh? They were what came from marrying your cousins.
“Oi, crazy girl, is it okay to get off here?”
Donna hit the button to open the doors and very nearly stepped out onto, well, nothing at all. Half a mile below her London streaked by.
With one foot hanging in thin air, Donna clutched the door for support. She was on a flying bus. A bus. That could fly.
She stared wide eyed at Christina, who looked sheepish, changed gear and said, “Anti gravity wheel clamps.”
Donna, understandably enough, fainted dead away.
When Donna came round (still on the floor of the bus, thank you very much, posh girl) she found Christina pulling a kettle, two mugs and a box of teabags from a rucksack big enough to house a small Labrador.
“Let me guess,” she said, propping herself up on her elbows, “it’s bigger on the inside?”
“Just very cleverly packed. You fainted.”
“Of course I fainted!” Donna pulled herself up onto a seat. “You’ve got a flying bus, what was I meant to do, congratulate you?”
“It would have been polite.” Christina offered her a mug of tea, which Donna accepted with one hand, her other hand grabbed Christina’s wrist and squeezed.
“I’m going to ask you a question, and this is a very, very important question, so I’d like you to give me a serious answer.”
“Are we on the ground?”
Christina smiled. “Yes, we’re in the middle of Hampstead Heath.”
“The obvious place to park a bus.”
“I needed a patch of open ground. I haven’t been practicing my vertical parking.”
“Think of it as a parallel parking with the aid of gravity.”
“You haven’t asked,” Christina noted as they finished their tea, “how the bus flies.”
“You already said, anti gravity wheel clamps.”
“And you know how those work?” Christina sounded doubtful.
“Yeah,” said Donna. “They work in a very clever outer spacey way.”
“Technically it’s Lady Christina.”
“Yeah, that’s never going to happen, posh girl. Christina, are you wearing a catsuit?”
“And what’s that around your waist?”
“A rope and grappling hook.”
“Any chance of a lift back to Chiswick in this thing? On the ground, ideally.”
“Normally I would, but the exhibition leaves tomorrow and I’m already late.”
“Late for what?”
Christina turned in the drivers seat and looked Donna up and down. “Actually, while you’re here you can make yourself useful. I’ve never been sure about that handbrake, and I could use a getaway driver.”
Which was how Donna Noble found herself behind the wheel of the bus, a hundred feet above the British museum while Christina hung from a cable underneath, like something out of Mission Impossible.
“This,” Donna shouted out the door, “is mental.”
The bus lurched sideways. “Donna!” Christina shrieked. “Keep your foot on the brake!”
The bus trundled to a stop outside Donna’s house.
“I want a job,” said Donna.
“You already have one,” answered Christina. “At least, you do if I don’t fire you for sleeping on the job.”
“I don’t want to work at the garage, I want to work for you.”
“I don’t need a PA, I’m an art dealer—“
“And art thief, and the owner of a flying bus. I can’t think of anyone who needs a PA more.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“You’re late,” said Sylvia as soon as Donna was in the door. “I wanted to throw your dinner away, but your grandfather insisted on putting it in the oven for you.”
“I had another migraine and slept it off in the office. I’m not very hungry.”
Donna was ordinary. Her whole life had been ordinary. Even the part of Donna that understood how anti gravity wheel clamps work was ordinary, deep down.
And she knew if she tried hard enough she could go to bed and wake up in the morning convinced that nothing had happened, that it had been a figment of her imagination, a side effect of her migraines. She could quit her job and get a new one. A nice, normal job with no flying buses.
But Donna had never felt so alive as she did driving that bus, so she sat at the kitchen table letting her dinner get cold while she sketched out a diagram for a power coupling to connect the wheel clamps to the handbrake.
“I have a weird brain,” Donna announced, stepping onto the bus once everyone but Christina had gone home. “I have a year and a half gap in my memory. I faint and get blindingly bad migraines. I know things that I shouldn’t know. That I can’t know. I’ve seen practically every neurologist in London, twice. They sent me for an MRI scan and I broke the machine. My brain broke the machine.”
“Those machines are expensive.”
“Yeah, that was mentioned once or twice.”
“It’s a wonder you didn’t send the bus crashing to the ground last night.”
“Nah,” Donna shrugged. “Wrong sort of sort of technology.”
“You really know how it flies?” Christina still sounded unconvinced.
“That reminds me, hang on.” Donna produced a folded sheet of paper from her bra and offered it to Christina. “Have the boys make this, it will connect the handbrake to the wheel clamps which should stop the bus plummeting towards the ground every time you take your foot off the brake; which I really think is more excitement than even you need in your life.”
Later, they decamped to the pub at the bottom of the road and Christina sipped gin and tonics while Donna doodled a circuit diagram for a perception filter on a coaster and tried to explain.
“It’s difficult. Bloody annoying actually, is what it is. I’ve got all this stuff in my head that I don’t understand, and if I think about it too much or get close to remembering where it came from I faint, and when I wake up I can’t remember what I was remembering.”
Donna lifted up Christina’s glass, snatched the coaster from underneath it, handed the drink back and continued the diagram. “And my family tell me not to think about it, but if I do that then the migraines just get worse and worse until I wake up at three o’clock in the morning wanting to turn the toaster into a time machine.”
“Time machine?” Christina’s interest was piqued.
“You’ve already got a peerage and a flying bus, don’t get greedy.” Donna drained her drink and offered the three coasters containing her circuit diagram to Christina. “Do you want these? I don’t know exactly what it does yet, but you never know, might come in handy.”
Donna was organising Christina’s diary for the next few weeks and waiting for her boss’s financial advisor to e-mail back about a rescheduled meeting, when the woman herself called and offered to treat her to lunch.
They ate at a brasserie across the road from the National Gallery; and after lunch Christina suggested they take a stroll round.
“Oi, hang on,” said Donna when they’d been wandering for twenty minutes or so. “We’re not just looking around, you’re casing the joint!”
Christina looked around to see if anyone had overheard. “If you’re desperate to make my life that much more interesting, you could phone in a tip telling them to expect me.”
“Why do you do this, anyway? Because I was reading your financial report this morning and it’s not as though you’re short of a quid or two.”
“For the adventure, Donna,” said Christina as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Hmm. Try having my brain, that’s an adventure. I never know if the next thought that passes through my brain will induce a blinding headache or a bout of unconsciousness.”
“How are you managing?”
“Oh, you know, I try to spend most of my time thinking about tea.”
“Fascinating, I’m sure.” Christina squeezed Donna’s arm. “I’m going to take a look at the security cameras. Distract that guard.”
“Oi, you--” but Christina was already off, so Donna flipped her hair back, pulled down the neckline of her top, thrust her chest out and stalked in the direction of the security guard.
Donna woke up at quarter past three in the morning with the overwhelming need to speak to Christina. She picked up her mobile from where it was charging on her bedside table. Christina answered on the third ring.
“What would you say,” Donna said, “if I told you there was a hole in time and space in the middle of Cardiff?”
“I’d say that I’m hanging by a wire from the ceiling of the National Gallery and can we talk about it in the morning?”
“At least tell me you had your mobile on silent?”
“I’m a professional, Donna. Of course I had my mobile on silent.”
“All right, have fun. And don’t get arrested.”
The next morning Donna arrived at the bus to find Christina removing a very expensive looking portrait from its frame and slipping it into one of the bus’s hidden compartments. She made a mental note to arrange for Christina to meet with some fences.
“Last night you were babbling something about a hole in time and space in Cardiff?”
“Oh, yes. Imagine that something, or someone, had made a big tear in the fabric of reality, big enough to drive this bus through. Imagine that you could go anywhere, anywhen you wanted – provided you had a driver who knew what she was doing.”
“And you know what you’re doing, do you?”
“At least fifty percent of the time.”
Christina stepped elegantly over the cables that were trailing across the floor of the bus. “Had another mad scientist moment?”
Donna looked up from the wires she was fiddling with. “I wish you wouldn’t call me that, it makes me sound like I should be underneath a mountain, stroking a white cat and plotting the downfall of James Bond.”
She dropped the wires and picked up a sheaf of papers and a blackberry, switching seamlessly from Mad Scientist to Efficient Secretary.
“Your accountant phoned and said he absolutely has to speak with you today so I made a provisional appointment for after lunch, and if that’s okay I’ll confirm it. You have a meeting with an art dealer this morning, a legitimate one, so best not mention that Rembrandt. And here’s some information on an exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts that’s coming to London which I thought might be right up your street.”
“That’s great, Donna. But what, precisely, are you doing to the bus?”
“I was....” Donna paused. It was best not to think too much about these strange uncontrollable impulses to build or tinker, what Christina called her mad scientist moments. Thinking about them usually resulted in her cracking her head on something when she blacked out. It was best just to let her hands do the work, frequently she didn’t even know what she’d done until Christina asked and the words came tumbling from her mouth, bypassing the part of her brain that was screaming “THIS IS MENTAL.”
“I was constructing an oxygen shell so we can breathe when we take the bus into space.”
“We’re taking the bus into space?” Christina smirked. “I thought you didn’t want any more adventures?”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to do it without an oxygen shell.”
Christina smiled. “Sometimes you remind me of someone I once knew.”
“Sometimes I remind me of someone I once knew, I just wish I could remember who it was.”
“We’re on the moon,” said Donna, digging her fingernails into the back of the driver’s seat where Christina was sitting. “The actual moon.”
“You were expecting a television studio somewhere?” Christina asked. She was probably aiming for a scathingly sarcastic tone, but she missed. Not that Donna could blame her; after all, they were on the actual moon.
Finally giving up all pretense at being unimpressed, Christina grinned and said, “Can we go outside?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it. The oxygen shell doesn’t extend beyond the door.”
“Can you expand it?”
Donna opened her mouth, and then closed it. She rummaged around her head: touch-typing, Microsoft excel, Coronation Street, Agatha Christie whodunits.
“Sorry, superbrain doesn’t seem to be working at the moment. We can come back another day, you can probably buy spacesuits on eBay these days.”
Instead they trundled around the moon for half an hour before they dinged the suspension on a pothole in the sea of tranquility.
“This hole in space, the one in Cardiff,” Christina began.
“What about it?”
“We didn’t need it to get to the moon.”
“Yeah, but with the rift we can go to other galaxies. Of course we could go to other galaxies in the bus, but at sixty miles an hour it might take us a while.”
“Why don’t we leave now?”
“We’re waiting for me to design a navigational system to keep the danger of us landing in a vast lava plain to a minimum.”
Christina snorted. “Where’s your sense of adventure, Donna?”
“It’s afraid of landing in a vast lava plain.”
“I’m not good at waiting,” Christina pouted.
Donna rolled her eyes. “Stop acting like a spoiled kid. And don’t give me that ‘I’m a dangerous and seductive heiress’ look, missy, because it doesn’t work on me.”
“Donna,” called Wilf, shutting the front door, “why is there a double-decker bus parked in the drive?”
“Yeah, sorry. That’s hers. Gramps, this is my friend Christina. Sorry,” Donna gave an exaggerated roll of her eyes, “the Lady Christina.”
“Hey, I wasn’t even going to say anything this time.”
“Wilfred Mott, my lady, pleased to meet you.”
“It’s just Christina,” she glared at Donna, “really.”
“And don’t call her lady,” added Donna. “It only gives her ideas.”
“Hey!” Donna called, catching Christina as she was dashing out of the office. “I’ve got a job for you.”
“I don’t think you quite understand the employer – employee relationship.”
Donna ignored her and handed her a sheet of paper. “Shopping list. Things for the bus, I’ve underlined the ones that’ll probably have to be stolen. You’ll have to go Cardiff for some of it.”
“We’re in London,” Christina pointed out.
“And you’ve got a flying bus. Ring me when you get back.”
“There’s no such thing as aliens,” Donna declared.
They were in Christina’s disgustingly large penthouse sharing dinner while Donna did a last minute redesign of the bus’s structural integrity system. If Donna owned a flat this nice she wouldn’t basically be living in a bus, even if it could fly.
“Donna, we were on the moon the day before yesterday.”
“And we didn’t see any aliens, did we?”
“I’ve met aliens,” said Christina. “They looked like giant flies.”
“People in costume,” dismissed Donna, and she continued to scrawl the combination of circuit diagrams, advanced mathematical equations and what could understandably be mistaken for hieroglyphics over Christina’s table.
“And there was another alien. He looked human. Aliens that look alien are easy to accept, but aliens that look like us… But there he was, bold as brass, looking human.”
“You probably looked Time Lord to him,” said Donna absent mindedly, without so much as looking up from her writing.
“Donna. How did you know that? How did you know he was a Time Lord?”
“You told me. You must’ve done, because I can’t know that. I can’t know that. Christina, tell me you told me that?”
If Christina had an answer Donna didn’t hear it. She was too busy sliding off her chair. The last thing she saw was Christina’s expensively waxed and polished floor rushing up to meet her.
Donna woke up on Christina’s dining room floor. At least this time Christina had put a pillow under her head, which was an improvement.
Of the thief herself there was no sign. “She could at least leave a note,” Donna grumbled to herself. “Gone stealing, back in half an hour.”
She wandered around Christina’s flat. She didn’t own a television, and what sort of woman had a flying bus but not a TV? She succeeded in making herself a cup of tea with a kettle that looked like a piece of modern art, and started browsing Christina’s books; War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov. Christina was such a show off; most of Donna’s books had pictures of crime scene tape on the cover.
She selected a book because it had a picture of a penguin on the cover, although she suspected the title was going to turn out to be a metaphor for something.
She was a third of the way through Death and the Penguin (and was quite pleased to discover there was an actual penguin in it) when Christina arrived back.
“Nice of you to stick around and make sure I was okay,” Donna commented.
“I do have better things to do with my time than sit around watching you be unconscious, you know. What are you reading?”
Donna held up the book to let Christina see the cover. “Good choice, but I didn’t know you could read Russian.
Donna looked at the page, properly looked. Ah, so that’s what the Russian alphabet looked like. “I… don’t.” She started to feel dizzy.
“Are you going to faint?” asked Christina.
“Are you sure?”
“No. Yes. I think so.”
“I’ve got an English translation of that lying around somewhere if you’d like?”
Donna nodded. She’d really been enjoying that book.
Donna had finally finished her modifications to the bus. At least, she thought she’d finished. It was a bit hard to tell as half the time she hadn’t had the foggiest idea what she’d been doing.
In celebration of the probable completion, a very expensive bottle of scotch had been broken out of the “for emergencies only” compartment, and Christina and Donna were sitting with their feet up on the seats toasting the bus.
“I thought it was a brain tumour, you know,” said Donna, who’d reached the maudlin stage of being drunk. “All this stuff in my head, I really thought it was going to kill me.”
“Do you wish you didn’t have it?” Christina asked, sloshing more whiskey into their glasses.
“How could I?” Donna laughed. “I’ve made a flying bus.”
“I think you’ll find that it flew long before you came along, thank you very much.”
“All right then, I made a flying bus better. I just wish I knew what had happened to me in those missing eighteen months.”
“Maybe you ran off into time and space with a charming art thief?”
Donna laughed so hard she spilled scotch down her top.
Donna was standing at a bus stop in Cardiff when the number 200 pulled up. She picked up her bag and hopped aboard.
“Are you going to Market Street?” asked one of the women still at the stop.
“No,” said Christina, smirking. “We are really not going to Market Street.” The doors shut and she turned to Donna. “Ready?”
“Oh, yes!” Donna shouted as the rift storm started up around them.
Christina grinned, shunted the bus into gear and steered them into the heart of the storm.
“I thought,” said Christina, with a white knuckled grip on the steering wheel, “that your navigation system was supposed to keep us away from vast lava plains?”
“Looking on the bright side,” said Donna, releasing her white knuckled grip on Christina, “we know that the handbrake works.”
Donna had started to suspect that Christina has that psychological condition – what’s it called, kleptomania? – that forced her to steal anything that isn’t nailed down. To be honest, sometimes things being nailed down don’t stop her.
Christina’s hand was warm in Donna’s as they ran in the direction of the bus, the footfalls of the guards close behind.
Donna didn’t know what the king was throwing such a fit about, as crowns went it wasn’t a particularly nice one.
They reached the bus just as an arrow thudded into a tire. This was where a flying bus came in handy. Donna threw herself into the drivers seat, glanced up to make sure Christina was onboard before closing the doors, slammed her foot onto the accelerator and the bus shot straight upwards.
“Where to now?”
“There’s a long standing tradition in my family,” said Christina, “when we’re being pursued by the authorities we flee to Caribbean islands with attractive women in tow.”