It wasn’t even late yet. It was so early people were still arriving, by bus, but no, Stuart had already Found The One, for the night, of course, so, here you go, Vince. Take my car home. Only parked around the corner…
Vince turned up the collar of his thin shirt against the rain. He didn’t mind. Not really; it was Stuart, it was what he did. Should be used to it by now. Best mates, yeah, this is what you do.
‘Only round the corner? Which corner?’ Vince muttered, passing a straggle of trannies who called and waved. ‘Yeah, have a nice night, ladies, but I’ve seen who’s in tonight, so good luck with that…’
Round the corner…
…flashing blue lights everywhere, a hole in the tarmac behind barricades, coppers all over the place, so better go the long way round…
…and wouldn’t you know it, there’s the jeep, but between him and it, under the dark of a bridge, shadows moving, catcalls… local skins come queer-bashing and, oh, lord, he was too far down the street to back off now, they’d clocked him…
Vince swallowed. If he legged it, he might be able to get back to the lights, the police cars, before they caught him up. Might. But…
A large hand closed over his, warm, comforting, like when you’re lost and your mum finds you again. But this wasn’t a woman’s hand and the voice that came with it was deep, commanding, male.
‘Run,’ it said.
No longer alone, Vince ran. With a yell the mob gave chase.
The stranger led him down a dark passage that led to the Rochdale Canal, along the tow path, back up a flight of steps and between the backs of buildings, through a yard, and finally out into the bright lights once more, just in time to lead the yobs right amongst the police before dashing away around the corner to safety. The strong fingers unwound from Vince’s and, out of breath, they both braced hands on thighs and sucked in lungsful of air, laughing and gasping.
Vince glanced at his companion and, oh, my god. Oh, my god, if you had to be rescued, yes, this is who you wanted to be rescued by… tall, as in, really tall and broad, black leather coat, wide shoulders, yes, oh, bit of a nose going on, and ears, oh, my god, those ears… but, still, ruggedly handsome with his dark hair and time to stop looking now and try not to mess this up.
‘You all right?’ the stranger asked. ‘You look a bit shook up…’
Northern, too. Local, by the sound of it, and Vince knew his accents pretty well. They played this game, in the shop, where are the customers from, and usually he could put them within a couple of miles, but this was more generic Northern, and…
The stranger was looking at him with a sort of detached compassion that made Vince feel strangely weak and giddy.
‘Yeah,’ Vince said. ‘I’m all right. But thanks, I don’t usually go that way but my mate parked his car and gave me the keys, and then there was the police cordon so I had to go round, and…’
‘Well, glad to have helped. Better be off, then.’
‘Oh.’ Vince straightened up. ‘Can I buy you a drink, to say thanks? There’s some nice bars down here, well, when I say nice, maybe not your sort of nice, or then again, who knows? But…’
‘Don’t suppose you know where we are, do you?’ the stranger asked.
‘Canal Street, Manchester.’ He didn’t add, ‘of course’, although how could you sound that local and not know…?
‘I was heading for Clitheroe when I was pulled off course… Wrong turn, took a wrong turn.’
‘Clitheroe?’ A laugh in Vince’s voice, too high, maybe from nerves. ‘It’s miles, is Clitheroe. You're miles off.’
A little cluster of revellers passed close by, singing and clutching each other, laughing, swinging handbags, tottering in heels; all men, of course, and the stranger’s brow furrowed, just a little.
‘You know, I think…’ his voice dropped, softened, became bewildered. ‘I think I’m lost.’
Vince took a breath; he had a story for this sort of thing and he desperately wanted to keep the man talking.
‘I was lost, once,’ he said. ‘It was awful; never been so frightened in my life. What happened was, see, we were in Kwiksave, over in the deli aisle, only you didn’t call it that then, it was cold meats, well, there never will be a deli aisle in the Kwicky, let’s face it, and they were arguing with my mum about a pack of ham in her bag… she said she’d bought it two days ago and had forgotten it was there, and no, she didn’t have the receipt, and they said it sounded suspicious, so she said well, it’s gone off, look, so how come it was off, they didn’t ought to stock meat that was off anyway, did they? She might of given that to her little boy for tea and then if he got poorly she’d sue… And so then one of them took hold of her elbow and she swore at him, and there was this bloke, a really big bloke, and she hit him with her handbag and that’s when I got frightened and ran off, and then I found the cereal and started reading the Shreddies, they had ever such good stories on the boxes, and this nice lady found me and let me play with her pricing gun while they looked for my mum.’
The stranger was staring at him with a mixture of awe and horror. Breathing in again, Vince carried on, not one to leave a story unfinished.
‘And that’s why I work in a supermarket now, I think, that nice lady and the pricing gun. And thinking, you shouldn’t accuse people like my mum and upset them. So I thought I could make a difference. I’m assistant manager now. Not in Kwiksave, of course.’
A shake of the head.
‘Do you ever shut up?’
Vince grinned. ‘Only when my mouth’s full. I mean – that is… I had tonsillitis once, couldn’t talk for a week… my mum said it was like living in a morgue. I know she didn’t mean it like that, she meant it was quiet, not that I looked like death warmed up, but…’ Vince broke off, swallowed. He wanted, he so wanted… and the bloke had held his hand, that must mean he was up for it, right? What would Stuart do? Bloke wouldn’t have had a chance, they’d be at Stuart’s place already, probably naked, oh, god, oh, my god, this bloke naked would be magnificent… Stuart… he’d have licked his lips, wriggled his shoulders and said, ‘wanna come back to mine…?’ in that slow Irish drawl of his and of course, they would, but he was Vince, he wasn’t Stuart, and the best he could do was shrug and say ‘I’ve got an A to Z in my flat. It’s not far, if you’d… if you like.’
‘What, me go wandering off with a stranger in the middle of Manchester?’
‘Sorry. Vince, Vince Tyler.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Vince Tyler. I’m… John Smith.’
The pause made him wonder, but there was something familiar about the name – not just because it was a common name – so Vince nodded and let it go. And John Smith had extended a hand for him to shake, and the contact went on, and on, as if neither of them knew how to stop.
‘Your place?’ Smith said, disentangling himself.
‘Right. This way.’
The made it to the jeep without mishap and Vince drove through the streets to Fallowfield.
‘…it’s not much, but it’s home, and there’s a separate bedroom, and own bath,’ Vince said over his shoulder as he jiggled the key in the door, ‘so that’s good, and come in… What would you like to drink, there’s beer, and tea, I’ve got tea, or coffee, oh, and I can run to a gin and tonic, or just water if you’ve been drinking, but you haven’t, have you?’
‘No, have you?’
‘Not driving Stuart’s car home, course not, only... oh, my god, Stuart’s car… still, it’ll be all right, I hope, local kids, real vandals they are, rip it to bits first chance… now, drink?’
‘Tea, thank you… and… hello!’
Smith had found the fish tank and was standing in front of it looking at the inhabitants. Well. More sort of staring, really…
‘Shubunkins,’ Vince said, putting the kettle on. ‘I like them, nice and calming, fish are.’
‘Can I just ask…? What have you got in there with them?’
‘Just a couple of Comets, I don’t like the really fancy sorts, personally, you know, the body shapes don’t look right to me, and…’
‘No, not what other fish… the… that…?’
‘Oh, haven’t you ever seen Doctor Who? I mean, I know not everyone does, but you don’t know a Dalek when you see one? Or…’
‘Yes, I know a Dalek when I see one, Vince Tyler…’ Smith whirled away from the tank and put his hands on Vince’s shoulders, looking into his eyes. Vince felt his knees tremble and bit back a sigh. ‘Thing is, how come you do? Now, listen, I need you to tell me everything, and I mean everything you know about it, all right?’
‘Brilliant, yeah, shall we sit down? I can put a tape on for you if you like, a video…’
‘No; I mean, the Dalek, you shouldn’t know anything about them and here you are in a little tiny flat with a tiny little model Dalek. In a fish tank. So tell me how you know?’ Smith pulled a card from his pocket, thrusting it at Vince. ‘Tell me, go on? Or do you not see what it says there?’
Vince started, boggled, looked up at Smith and began to grin. For a moment the words swam and slurred in front of his eyes before settling…
“The Doctor,” it said. “Yes, really. I’m the Doctor, Number nine. It’s true, it’s all true, yes, it really is me… just like…”
‘Oh, my god!’ he said. ‘It’s you! It says, I’m the Doctor, yes, it really is me!’ He laughed. ‘Magnificent!’
‘What?’ Smith snatched the card back, scowled at the paper. ‘…”just like on TV, only this time”…’
‘John Smith, of course! Third Doctor, “Spearhead from Space”, that’s the name he used!’ Vince bit his lower lip. ‘All this time, I knew you were real, had to be! They couldn’t make you up!’
‘I… but… what’s happened? You’re not supposed to know about me, not here, not now… I don’t… Videos, you said. What did you mean, videos?’
‘You’re real, you are!’
Overwhelmed by it all, and unaware he was flushed pink with excitement, Vince flung his arms around the Doctor.
‘I am, yeah…’ The Doctor patted at Vince’s shoulder. ‘You’re pretty real yourself, do you mind…?’
‘Sorry. It’s just…’ Vince lifted his eyebrows, eyes dancing. ‘Oh, my god!’
‘Here, let me see that!’ The Doctor took back the card, frowning at it. ‘I don’t know what’s happened; it’s never done that before!’
‘That’s usually my line!’ Vince said, laughing, shaking his head. ‘What d’you mean, though?’
‘Psychic paper. It tells people what they expect to see, sort of… gives me an excuse to get into places, or out of trouble…’ He sighed as the lettering faded from the paper. ‘So. It’s told you what you need to believe, but it told you who I really am; it never does that!’
‘Of course, if it really is what you say, it might have told me that and you could be… oh, I don’t know, you could be the Master in disguise, but…’
‘Now, hang on!’ the Doctor put in. ‘There’s no need to insult me!’
‘I didn’t mean…’ Vince faltered again, still reeling from the shock. ‘Oh, my god!’
‘Yeah, you said that. Cup of tea, was there? And just how do you know about me again?’