The staring had gone on for at least ten minutes. The Doctor was used to being stared at, but not when he was on holiday and doing something as normal as sitting in a café drinking tea, and so he had ignored it. For ten minutes. But by now the staring had become too distracting, and he turned on the frowning child at the next table. “Yes?”
“Are you a clown?” the girl said immediately. She seemed quite unabashed at having been caught behaving so rudely.
“No, I most certainly am not,” the Doctor retorted. “Are you?”
“I’m six,” the girl said scornfully.
“So am I,” the Doctor said. “In a manner of speaking.”
“How? You don’t look six.”
“Well, I’m the sixth version of- Look, it doesn’t matter. I’m neither a clown, nor a jester, and this coat is the height of fashion in several galaxies you are never likely to visit. Now I would appreciate a cessation of your staring, if you wouldn’t mind. It’s putting me off my Darjeeling.”
He felt he had handled the situation very well, but he had just raised the teacup to his lips again when the girl dumped her glass of lemonade in front of him, and climbed up into the opposite chair.
“What’s cessation mean?”
The Doctor stared at her — accidentally in shock, rather than rudely with intent. “It means end, stop, a permanent pause,” he explained, having recollected himself. “It certainly doesn’t mean “would you like to share my table?’”
“You looked lonely. I thought you might like to talk to me instead.”
“Well,” the Doctor said, momentarily lost for words again, “that was very considerate of you, thank you- I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
“Donna,” the girl said. “Donna Noble. What’s your name?”
“John Smith,” the Doctor said, rather than have an argument with this child over whether ‘the Doctor’ was a proper name for a person, “but people generally call me ‘Doctor’.”
To his surprise, Donna nodded, red and white straw in her mouth, and noisily sucked up more lemonade without saying anything. Clearly the decision to soft-pedal his name had been a good one.
“Anyway,” the Doctor said, “thank you, Donna, for thinking of me, but I assure you I am not lonely. As a matter of fact, I was enjoying the blissful solitude resulting from the temporary absence of my young friend, Peri.” Three women were ushered over to Donna’s recently vacated table, and the Doctor sighed. “But, I suppose, one can always set solitude aside when faced with such captivating company.”
“What?” Donna said.
“I’d be pleased to share my table with you,” the Doctor explained. He cast around for something he could ask a six-year-old, and decided on, “What are you doing in Strathclyde?”
“I’m on holiday,” Donna said, with, the Doctor thought, a degree of pride.
“As am I,” he said. “Another thing we have in common, though I,” he chuckled self-deprecatingly, “was aiming for Devon.”
Donna screwed up her face. “Devon? Isn’t that-”
“-at the other end of the country? I know. Peri was quick to point out the same thing, but it can’t be helped. The TARDIS has a mind of her own sometimes.”
“What’s the TARDIS?”
“Do you always ask this many questions?”
“Yes,” Donna said, without apology.
“Good,” the Doctor said, and smiled. “I like a girl who asks questions.” She beamed at him. “The TARDIS is… well, it’s a sort of… vehicle that I use to get from place to place.”
“You mean a spaceship?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You said galaxies,” Donna explained. “When you were talking about your coat.”
“So I did,” the Doctor said, rather impressed.
“So, are you an astronaut?”
“…No,” the Doctor said.
“What are you, then?”
“I’m,” he lowered his voice, “a superhero.”
Donna laughed, raucously, but not unkindly and the Doctor sighed. “Nobody ever believes me,” he confided in a weary tone, “but I am.”
“I can’t until somebody’s in peril, and fortunately that is not currently the case.”
“Are you sure you’re not a clown?”
“Very sure,” the Doctor told her, “but I have been known to do a bit of magic, a bit of slight of hand, from time to time. I could show you that, if you like.”
Though apparently very unwilling to humour him, Donna accepted. When Peri arrived twenty minutes later, however, she was grinning and clapping as the Doctor produced a large, potted rhododendron from her backpack.
“What're you doing to that poor plant?” Peri asked, sitting down in the last vacant chair around the table.
“Magic,” the Doctor and Donna said together, and grinned at each other.
“Did you have a good time?” the Doctor asked Peri, eyeing the large number of bags she had acquired in the last hour. “Spent a lot of my money, I see. What’s that? Peri, is that a hat box?”
“Yep,” Peri said. She opened the hat box, removed a large pink hat from its depths, and placed it on her head. “What do you think? Nice, huh?”
“…It’s a bit impractical,” the Doctor said dubiously. “Unless we land on the lost Planet of the Hats, but I don’t think that’s likely.”
“There’s a Planet of the Hats?” Donna asked.
“Probably,” Peri said. Then she seemed to register Donna’s presence for the first time. “Oh, hello. Who’re you?”
“This is my new friend, Donna,” the Doctor explained.
“You’re Peri, aren’t you,” Donna said.
“That’s right,” Peri said warily. She looked sideways at the Doctor. “What’s the Doctor been saying about me?”
“He said it was much quieter when you weren’t around,” Donna said, ignoring the Doctor’s curt head shake, “but I think he was bored without you, so I came to talk to him. I like your hat.”
Peri pulled it off her head and put it on Donna’s. “Hmmm… Well, it looks better on you,” she declared — untruthfully because it clashed violently with Donna’s red hair. Hat-less, she crumpled against the table. “Ugh, I’m pooped, Doctor. Who knew Scotland could be so exhausting?”
“You should have been here in 1745,” the Doctor said. “That was the year Bonnie Prince Charlie raised an army and marched on Edinburgh,” he told Donna, who nodded as though she had known this all along. “He got as far as Derbyshire, I believe, before he had to turn back,” the Doctor continued reminiscently. “Nice boy, but not very bright, I’m sorry to say.”
“Well, it all sounds fascinating, but I’d rather have a long soak back in the TARDIS, and then try again for somewhere sunny.”
“Yes, well, we can but try,” the Doctor agreed. “Come on then.” He picked up several of Peri’s bags and she stood with a groan.
“Can I come with you?” Donna asked from under the hat.
“Yes, I don’t see why not,” the Doctor said. He’d grown fond of Donna over the last half an hour.
“Doctor, no!” Peri whirled on him. “She’s just a little kid! She has to go back to her parents.”
“I’d take her back eventually,” the Doctor protested.
“No,” Peri said. “I’m putting my foot down. For once. And don’t you say ‘just one trip’, either,” she added, as he opened his mouth. “I don’t think you know what ‘one’ means.” She knelt down next to Donna, who looked mutinous.
“I want to go.”
“That’s because you don’t know where we’re going,” Peri said wryly, with a glance back at the Doctor. “It’s not like this usually. It’s not nearly so nice.”
“I don’t care.”
“Won’t your mom be worried about you, Donna?” Peri wheedled. “And your dad? Come on, we’ll take you back to them. Where are they?”
“…Chiswick,” Donna said sulkily.
“Chiswick?” the Doctor repeated. “Chiswick?”
Peri turned to look up at him. “Where’s that? Is it a coffee shop?”
“It’s at the other end of the country,” the Doctor said sternly to Donna, “or near enough. I didn’t know you were here without your parents. That’s extremely dangerous, young lady. I’m very disappointed in you.”
Donna muttered something that sounded a lot like, “Didn’t ask,” and Peri said,
“Just a moment ago, you were talking about abducting her and putting her in more danger than-”
“Yes, yes,” the Doctor said briskly. Now that it had been pointed out to him, he had remembered how wrong it was to take a six-year-old away from her parents. Susan had been older, of course, her parents had had more time to get to know her, but if Donna’s parents were even half as angry he’d be lucky to get out of this one with any spare regenerations. “Come on. Back to the TARDIS. You too, Donna. We’re taking you home.”
Peri insisted on bringing the rhododendron, the Doctor carried her bags in his left hand, and Donna, still wearing Peri’s enormous hat, took his right. She seemed un-phased by the TARDIS interior, but then she was young enough to believe anything was possible. It was a shame, the Doctor thought wistfully, that she wasn’t destined to travel with him after all.
He left Donna with Peri and the pot plant, and went to change his clothes. When he returned to the console room he found Donna asleep on the floor, one hand curled around the brim of the pink hat.
"I challenged her to race me down the corridors,” Peri explained quietly. She shrugged and smiled. “She won. But it tired her out. I don’t know how long its been since she last slept.”
“Hmm,” the Doctor said, as he stretched over the sleeping child to where the de-materialisation lever was. He pulled it and the time rotor whirred.
“...Doctor,” Peri said, and he looked up. “I don’t think policemen in the 70s wore spats.”
The Doctor frowned at her. “I’m sure the ones with style did.”
The TARDIS landed with a soft thump, and the Doctor scooped Donna up in his arms. Outside the TARDIS doors, the Chiswick street was awash with blue flashing lights and men in dark uniforms. There was a woman with neat bobbed hair standing in the doorway of one of the houses, and her face was very worried.
The Doctor hefted Donna higher up his shoulder and walked over to her. “I believe this is yours.”
“Donna!” the woman screamed and seized her daughter from him. “Where were you? Where did you find her?”
“Oh, er- Strathclyde,” the Doctor said, once he’d worked out whom she was addressing.
“Strathclyde?” Donna’s mother said, in the much the same tone that the Doctor himself had said “Chiswick?” earlier. “What on Earth was she doing there? And what is that?” She had just caught sight of the hat.
“Holiday,” Donna’s small voice murmured. “I went on holiday. And in a spaceship.”
“She means the bus,” the Doctor said. “I don’t know who sold her a ticket. Public transport, eh? It’s a disgrace. Well, I ought to be going,” he added, as Donna’s mother looked ready to challenge him on some of the finer points of her daughter’s adventure. “Peri says she can keep the hat.”
Two hours later, Donna Noble woke up in her own bed and found her old gramps dozing in the chair opposite.
“Didn’t want you sneaking off again, did we?” he explained when she woke him by clambering into his lap. Then he began to laugh. ‘I don’t know, Donna. Sometimes you amaze me, you really do. Strathclyde. To think. All on your own, too. That’s my girl. Though,” he tried to arrange his face into a serious expression that didn’t fool Donna for a minute, “it was very wrong. Your mother was worried sick. Lucky that nice policeman found you before anything bad happened, eh?”
“He wasn’t a policeman,” Donna said, snuggling closer.
“What do you mean, wasn’t a policeman?”
“He was a superhero,” Donna said. She yawned. “With a spaceship. He said- he’d take me to the Planet of the Hats… one day.”
“Of course he did, sweetheart,” Wilf said, and held her close as she drifted back to sleep.