The whitewashed walls of the Steer Inn were cheerful, almost ebullient, as they inspected the man standing not ten feet from its front door. Nothing out of the ordinary, it noted, and yet, and yet - and yet… Something was intriguing, something was off about the man in the black leather jacket. His hands clasped in front of him as if waiting for a bus, he simply stood, his head tilted to one side in the harsh glare of the streetlamp behind him. A small halo of council-run light circled his short, dark hair, framing the generously-proportioned ears with a Monet-esque vagueness, serving to make him appear something that the pub might have mistaken for alien. But that would have been silly.
Just as the pub gave up all hope of him moving, he pulled in a deep breath, let his hands fall to his sides, and strode up to the door.
“Just a quick pint,” he said blithely. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
The public house did not reply. In the same way that rain falls on a public holiday no matter the country or planet, it didn’t even need to.
The TARDIS gave a muted dong!, a soft chime of the most alarming scream for help she could manage. The man with the brown suit and hair that looked like a collection of survivors from an explosion in a pipe-cleaner factory looked up from his perch on the high chair.
“What?” he demanded, leaping off the cushion and rushing to the side of the Time Rotor. “What’s the matter?”
His hands pushed at levers and twisted at globes half-sunk into the control console as he whizzed around the six-sided dashboard, his eyebrows hugging together in fright and worry. Then he stopped dead, eyeing the large monitor now displaying several coruscating circles and Gallifreyan symbols. He stood back, his hands dropping to his sides.
“A pub? You want to go to a pub?” he asked, and if confusion had been a shade of paint he could have redecorated the inside of the timeship several times over.
Again the dull throb of a plea chimed at him.
“Alright, alright - enough with the cloister bell,” he warned. “We’ll go. But if you just want a quick pint, asking about the worst thing that could happen, I’ll be very disappointed in you. Everyone knows that’s the quickest way to get into the kind of trouble that it takes me at least forty-two minutes to get back out of.”
The lights around him flickered brighter. He pushed buttons, adjusted levers, yanked handles.
The TARDIS homed in.
“No, no, no,” the man said cheerfully, one hand going to the red bow-tie at his neck. “I’m not a Tommy Cooper fan. I just want to know where I can get a Betamax machine.”
The woman, older than him in appearance, put her hands on her hips. She huffed and then looked around the field, taking in the many cars and vans dotted about under the weak Sunday sun. “This is a car boot sale. I don’t know what everyone’s got.”
“But you’ve got a Philips N-1700,” he pointed out petulantly, his hand coming off the bow-tie to point at the machine on the picnic table in front of her.
“And you’re wearing a bow-tie. Doesn’t mean you have a rubber chicken in your pocket.”
“Actually, I do have a—”
“Try Bill - the bloke behind you. Red Ford Focus. Looks like he has a lot of tape players,” she said, turning away.
He nodded, looking over his shoulder to locate the nearest red car. He looked back at her. “Thanks. Oh, by the way…” He pointed to a small china horse. “You should get this piece valued by someone off the Antiques Roadshow. If I’m not mistaken, it’s from Madame de Pompadour’s personal collection. Worth a small house. Well, a large house up here in Yorkshire.”
She turned and stared at him. Then she looked down at the horse. She picked it up. Carefully.
“You’re welcome,” he said, spinning away. He straightened his bow-tie with a flourish, paddled his fingers against thin air, and then made for the red vehicle parked about twenty feet away across the green grass. “Bill, is it?” he called with gusto.
The man currently perched on the open tail inside the boot of the car looked up from his newspaper. “Aye. What can I do for you?”
“Lady over there with the amusing car says you have a Betamax machine,” he said with an entire tenement row of happy teeth.
Bill, not one to pass up a sale, folded his newspaper and got to his feet, being careful not to bump his head on the inside of the boot lid. “Don’t have one with me, but I know where I can get one.”
“Splendid! Always wanted a Betamax,” the man cried, his hands clasping together and rubbing as if they needed a polish. “When, where, how much - and at the risk of sounding impatient - when?”
“Uhm…” Bill looked the man up and down, only slightly perturbed by the air of dotty professor-ness that he exuded like the comfortable aroma of baked bread in a closed kitchen. “Well… I think my mate Dave might have one. I’ll have to give him a ring, let you know.”
“Oh,” the man managed, his face falling into disappointment. “I was kind of hoping you’d be able to lay your hands on it.” He delved into the pockets of his tweed jacket, producing a wad of rather battered fifty pound notes.
Bill’s eyes widened. “I’ll get my phone,” he said hastily, turning for the boot of the car.
The man dropped the money back into his pocket, his eyes going to the table between him and the car boot now busy with conversations and plans. He sniffed, then put his hands on his knees to bend down and inspect the array of electronica on the plastic table. Now and again his face would stretch into amused pity, or delight, or fond recollection, and his hand would go to a piece of machinery to give it an affectionate pat of attention.
Bill snapped his mobile phone shut and looked at the stranger. “Done. Dave says he has go into town tonight so he’ll bring it with him. He’s got two, but only one works. Is twenty quid alright?”
“Twenty?” the man protested. “It’s not exactly new, even for this period in time.”
“Yeah, but they’re rare these days,” Bill smiled.
“Fine,” the man said immediately, straightening. He hooked his thumbs around his red braces, pulling them cheerfully before pinging them against his shirt. “Where?”
“A pub near his place. It’s called the Steer Inn,” Bill said.
“I see what they did there,” the man grinned. “So what time, and how will I know him?”
“Well he’s at work now, but—”
“At work? On a Sunday? Shouldn’t be allowed.”
“You’re preaching to the choir, mate,” Bill said with a nod. “Anyway, he can be at the pub for about eight, he says. He’ll be the one—”
“Carrying a huge great Betamax tape recorder, yes,” the man interrupted. He lifted his wrist, peering at the watch face on the inside. “Thank you, Bill. You’ve been most helpful.”
“No trouble,” he said. “Do you know where the Steer Inn is?”
The man smiled rather gamely. “Not a clue.”
Bill turned and pointed toward the road. “You need to take that road there, the A161. Then you need High Street. It’s down there. Nice place.”
The man came closer to the table, leaning in, the fingers of both hands knotted together in clandestine curiosity. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial level. “Do they serve real ale?”
“Aye. The good stuff,” Bill smiled.
“Well then! I’m sold, as they say,” he grinned. “Whoever ‘they’ are. Thanks again, Bill. Oh - and that iPad you’ve got on your table is a fake. Looks like a Chinese or Rigellian knock-off. Probably best to get rid of it. The batteries explode if they’re overcharged, you know.”
“Oh!” Bill managed, looking down at the item on the table. “Really?”
“Unfortunately yes,” the man nodded. And then he turned briskly and marched off across the grass.
Bill picked up the iPod carefully, turning it over and over. His puzzlement was matched only by the amount of wonder he had for the man who had noticed some clue he still couldn’t find.
The man in the black jacket seated himself at the bar, looking up and down it as if expecting to find a man in a World War Two pilot’s coat grinning back at him. When no-one and nothing appeared to engage him, he instead looked to his left, at the small TV positioned in sturdy brackets above and behind the bar. BBC News 24 was busy broadcasting pictures and stories from all kinds of devastation and destruction, but he couldn’t look away.
“Like a car crash, int it?” said a breezy voice from his right. He turned his head and saw a tall lady watching him with laughing eyes. Her faded blue cardigan, buttoned half-way up over a yellow stop, told tales of long shifts behind the counter. She put a hand through her short brown hair. “What can I get you, love?”
“Well aren’t you a cheery soul? What’s your name?” the man asked with a smile.
“Any aliens on the telly, Margaret?” he asked innocently.
“Aliens? Not since Christmas,” she grinned, coming down the bar to stop opposite him.
“Then I’ll have a pint of… What have you got?” he asked.
She put her hand on the wooden counter, leaning on it slightly. “We’ve got everything local, and a lot of German in. What’s your preference?”
“When you say ‘local’…” he began. Something bounced around the inside of his head. “I’ll have to have a think.”
“Right you are.”
A loud creak was heard and Margaret looked up at the front door, currently a good thirty feet from the back of the black-jacketed punter. Her gaze followed someone as they weaved between the wooden tables and chairs, parking themselves on the stool in front of her.
“Evening,” said the newcomer, putting both elbows on the wooden top and lacing his fingers.
“Well good evening to you, sir,” she smiled. “What’ll it be?”
“Oh! Drink, right, yes. Got any Tennent’s?”
She took in his brown pin-striped suit and amusing bed-hair. “Of course,” she beamed. “Lager, Special or Ember?”
The man smirked as if he knew a great deal more than he was letting on. “Special, please. It might well be one of those nights.”
“Comin’ up,” she nodded, turning to the pumps further down the counter.
The man stared over his right shoulder, looking over the quiet interior of the Steer Inn. The wooden tables and chairs hinted at the empty snooker table toward the far wall, hoping he would feel the urge to try it out. “Bit quiet tonight, isn’t it?” he asked innocently. “Nothing… out of the ordinary happening.”
“Well, footie’s on the telly. We don’t have a licence to show it, see, so everyone’s at home watching it on their big plasma ‘home entertainment systems’,” she said. She watched the pint fill, slowing and dribbling in the top inch. Eventually she brought it over, setting it on the counter. “There you go, pet. That’s two twenty, please.”
“Money. Right.” The handsome stranger got off his stool, feeling through his pockets. “Ah. Here we are.” He set a crisp five pound note on the wooden surround, sitting down again.
Margaret picked it up and went to the till while the man picked up his pint. He sipped at it, decided he liked it, and downed a few large mouthfuls. He was just setting it down when, to his left, the man in black sniffed to himself.
“Is the BBC all you can get?” he asked. “Not got Sky, have you? They’ll have Star Trek on. Got a soft spot for Mister Spock,” he grinned.
Margaret chuckled, but the man in brown looked to his left. He gulped in surprise. And then approximately four fluid ounces of Tennent’s Special erupted from his mouth and nose like a pyroclastic cloud from Vesuvius. His hand slipped on the glass and it plummeted to the wooden counter. A graceful break-dancing spin later and its contents were all over everything in sight. The two men leapt to their feet in synchronised dismay.
“Oh, love! Just stand right there, let me help you!” Margaret cried. She was already whisking up a heavy bar towel and heading for the end of the counter that housed the trapdoor exit.
But the brown-haired man was staring at the man in the black jacket. “What on Gallifrey are you doing here?” he demanded.
The man in black halted his hands that were trying to brush a little wayward alcohol from his black t-shirt. He looked up quickly, staring at the man in the brown suit. “What did you just say?”
“Oh we’re all in Gallifrey,” Margaret said helpfully as she bullied the alcohol from the man’s suit jacket with her bar towel. “Did you not see the sign as you drove into town?”
“What?” the two men chorused.
There was another creak and the three of them looked to the door. A lean man in a tweed jacket and amusingly cut trousers was studying them from the entrance. He straightened his bow-tie as he gave a bemused sway, rather like barley in a gentle breeze.
“Oh,” he said curtly, before looking behind him and then back into the pub. “Two of us shouldn’t be here.”
Margaret just looked at him. “Oh relax, love. I think you’re all over eighteen.”
“I’m one thousand and seven,” the man in the bow-tie said, eyeing the other two men with a crafty smile. “And let me guess… you’re about nine hundred something - sixty, really, but you lie and say three,” he nodded to the man in the brown suit. “And you…” he added, turning to the man in black. “Well. Let’s just say you’re too busy angsting to count.”
“Say - very clearly - who you are,” the man in black warned.
Mr Bow-tie smiled in a way that made his eyes light up with eager glee. “You could say… I’m the new boy.”