Peter is sitting on a broken-down love seat. It was once a grand thing, many decades ago, all shiny and red and plush. Now all the flock is worn away and one of its fancy scrollwork legs has been replaced by a stack of books. Victorian novels, specifically. Clara’s novels: Trollope, Dickens, Hardy. She replaces one in the stack when she wants to read it and swaps in a new one. She’s got a steady stream of used novels standing in for their missing leg. Their love seat. Their broken-down love seat. The first time they made love was on it, so Peter is fond of it.
Peter’s sitting on their love seat, wearing jeans and a paint-stained t-shirt with his feet bare. He’s playing his guitar. It’s a Les Paul Standard with blackened strings. His fingers hurt.
The thing about a Les Paul Standard is that it’s not a punk guitar by anybody’s rules. It’s the guitar that punk is revolting against. The guitar of Jimmy Page in bellbottoms and a bare chest, swaggering around on stage while Plant shrieks about Mordor or some shite like that. The guitar of Robert Fripp, in suit and spectacles, perched on a stool noodling away.
If he were to play pop, he’d play a Rickie, but he hasn’t got that kind of cash. Besides, he doesn’t play pop. He plays punk. The guitar of punk is a Gibson SG. Or a Strat. Preferably a beaten-up Strat with a custom paint job by your art school friends. Or in this case, by Peter, because Peter is the one at art school.
But he’s got a Les Paul, because that’s what the pawnshop had the day after he won on the penny slot machine at the pub. A Les Paul with the fret rails worn down by the previous owner, who played folkie chords almost exclusively. For his first trick, he learns to tune it. For his second, he learns to play an E-shaped barre and slide it around. He does this while Clara watches him, bemused, with her nose in a book while she sits at the other end of the love seat. It’s long enough for both of them, especially because Clara doesn’t mind when he leans close to her.
Clara pays the rent, with cash from that job she doesn’t talk about much that involves the terrifyingly boring military man with the mustache. Something about the man sets Peter’s nerves on edge, but the job pays well enough to keep them both alive. He’s a kept man. Some day he’ll make her proud of him, he swears it. She’ll be happy she helped him through this time. Peter’s doing illustration at the school of art. Well, chiefly he’s doing Clara and this guitar and sometimes too much lager. When he can afford it. His pennies and spare pound coins are going into a jar he’s painted the word “amp” on. Sometimes he even skips cigarettes to put money in. Clara hates it when he smokes, so he might give up smoking entirely soon.
He’ll do anything for Clara.
His third trick is learning when he needs to change the strings. Rotosounds, light gauge. His fingers are starting to know what they’re doing on the fretboard. He finds a weird book at the guitar shop that sells him the strings, full of hand-drawn illustrations of amps and boxes on the fretboard. He learns a blues lick. Learns another. He learns fast; something in him thinks he was born already knowing how to play. His bleeding, blistered fingers slow him down until they start to toughen up. He learns whole songs, songs he loves, songs he can sing along with. The Beatles, the Stones, every pop song he sang along to on the radio when he was a boy. He has a crap LP player and a pile of crap records, worn and crackling, anything he can find in the second-hand shops. He plays them over and over, learning the solos to the note, snarling along with the singers. He hasn’t got Bowie’s baritone, but he’s got the range for Daltrey. For Bryan Ferry before he got boring. For Magazine and the Buzzcocks and Wire.
Peter starts to think he might be ready to play in front of other people, if only he had somebody to play with.
Is Clara other people? She’s watching him now, as he sits cross-legged on that love seat and finds his way through a Mick Ronson riff. She’s smiling at him. He plays Bowie to her and sings. You’ve torn your dress, your face is a mess. She loves it when he sings. Melts for him. Gets turned on for him. Gives him a look he’s never seen her give anybody else. Oh, that look.
He comes to the end of the song and accepts her kiss in thanks.
“Hey,” he says, and catches her hand. “Would you pierce my ear?”
“Right now? I guess – how?”
“Use a safety pin.”
She makes a face at him. “I’ve got a sewing needle. Hold on. We’ll do this properly.”
She comes back with antiseptic and a bit of gauze and a sewing needle that she heats with a match. To sterilize it, he thinks, then he imagines it going through his ear and giggles with nerves. She has a spare earring that she holds up to him, to see if he’s happy with it: a little gold hoop thing. He nods, looks away from the needle.
“Right,” she says. “Turn your head.”
He clenches his jaw so he doesn’t disgrace himself. She pushes the needle through. A pinch, a pop, and he knows it’s done. It didn’t hurt at all. She fiddles with his ear and that stings. He wrinkles up his nose. It’s not so bad. Then she sits back and holds up her compact mirror to him. He’s now got a tiny gold hoop in his left ear. He touches his earlobe. It’s hot. There’s a ring in it and a tiny drop of blood. It looks amazing. He’s got an earring! He grins. Now he’s really punk.
“Smashing,” he says. “Fantastic. Allons-y!” Clara looks at him oddly then takes the mirror away.
The whole thing has turned him on more than he wants to admit, Clara’s face so intent, the moment of pain, the knowledge that it’s one of her earrings in his ear. He kisses her and slides his hand up her thigh and finds it’s turned her on too.
The room smells of patchouli, pot, candle wax, tobacco, and sweat. He rolls a condom onto his prick while Clara watches, intent on him. He kneels over her, guides himself inside, and settles himself on top of her with her legs wrapped around his waist. Soft, sweet, wet. Is it punk to be this much in love? Probably not. Peter doesn’t care.
Life continues. School. Painting. Working on his portfolio. He’s got a degree show in another year and he really ought to be ready for it. He needs to learn how to be responsible. He gives up smoking tobacco; weed is expensive enough on its own. He saves up enough money to buy a sixth-hand Marshall at the pawnshop. A mate at the school cleans up the wiring so it stops crackling. Peter watches him intently, trying to learn. Electrics and valves baffle him, but he feels he ought to learn. The amp makes a glorious noise once it’s all soldered together again. He learns to make it feed back; learns further that he needs to find a practice space that isn’t their flat if he’s to try this again.
He plays. He paints. His head swims. Things swim inside it, rather. Images of strange places, strange things. Mathematics he has no hope of understanding. Sometimes it comes out on paper. Fantastic creatures and starscapes. He embarks on a series of watercolor and ink illustrations of a red desert with a half-destroyed barn in it that his tutors love. It’s a theme, and he’s certain it’s what he wants to paint. He has a knack for portraiture as well, for capturing likeness in grotesques, but it’s this landscape he returns to. The sand, the red sand. The barn. A forbidden city of spires in the distance, under a great transparent dome.
Sometimes the images overwhelm him. He doesn’t understand them. Where do they come from? Why is he cursed with them?
He stares at himself in the dim mirror in the bath, over the cracked porcelain sink, trying to work it out. He isn’t sure this face is his. It’s familiar, but it belonged to somebody else. He might have any face at all, at any time. Any body. He runs his tongue around inside his mouth, feeling his teeth. It’s all familiar and yet strange. His face isn’t supposed to be this way, all brown-haired and unlined. Except he’s going to give himself a line between his brows with all this frowning. He touches between his eyebrows, where a few errant hairs sprout. Is he good-looking? He has no faith in himself, or he would be faithless, except that Clara seems to like him.
“See anything you like?” Clara says. Her hand comes to rest on his back and her face pokes over his shoulder. She’s grinning at him. She’s so short, and her face is so round, and her nose is so perfect. Peter has drawn it a million times and he’ll draw it a million times more.
Peter smiles at her, shakes his head, winces.
“Is your head okay?” Clara asks.
Peter rubs the line between his eyebrows. “Yeah, mostly. Getting those flashes again. I’d think I was going mad except I know they aren’t real. I swear I know they’re not, Clara.”
She massages his neck. “It’s okay. I know. I know.”
He heads out to the sitting room, seats himself cross-legged on the love seat. He rolls himself a joint and sparks up. It dampens the flashes when he’s high. Doesn’t stop them, but makes them less terrifying. And he’s already learned to like playing when he’s high. His whole body melds with the guitar, one with the strings, the frets, the pick in his fingers. He finds the groove and stays there. He’s in a quiet vibration land; strange as it seems his musical dreams ain’t quite so bad. He can paint like this too, and that’s fantastic, but tonight he wants to play for hours and hours. It starts with Townsend then goes somewhere else. He follows the song in his head where it wants to go, winding around across the universes in his head.
He hears words. Words of love, of longing, of wanderlust. There’s a home waiting for him, but he can’t go there straight away. It’s so sad and not sad at all at once. He faces outward, resolutely, a wanderer with a purpose. He’s starting to write his own songs, but he’s too shy to play them for anybody else yet. He’s getting itchy to play the guitar in front of people, though.
Peter forms a band the next week with two blokes he knows from his printing workshop. They know a girl who plays bass and she agrees to join them after Peter talks to her about the Beatles. They have a practice session in a disused warehouse building. It’s damp and cold and Peter leaves his jacket on. His fingers are almost too cold to move on the frets. They’re trying to work out which songs they all know well enough to play. The girl is the only one of them who’s any good. She and Peter go off onto a cycle of every Beatles song on the first record. The drummer finally kens what they’re up to and snaps into Ringo Starr mode, heavy on the snare. He’ll have to be replaced eventually, but he’s not as bad as the rhythm guitarist. Peter wants to rage at him, but controls himself. Ignores the pudding-brain. He pogos, works up a sweat, finds a happy groove with the bass-player. His job is to work out a setlist that they can all play. He’s their leader, of course. There’s never another option when Peter is in the room.s
They practice. They’re bad, but after a couple of weeks a little less bad than they started. The rhythm guitarist can stay in time with the drummer, for one thing. The bassist can harmonize with Peter. They still don’t have a name. Peter hasn’t been able to come up with one he likes yet, and they’re all looking to him. It’ll be fine, Clara assures him, “Dreamboys” is a great name. Peter wrinkles his nose.
They get a gig Wednesday night at a local church. Kids dance to classic hits. It’s deeply unsatisfying. They move up to a bar that has seen better decades, with a loo that Peter won’t go in a second time. Clara refuses to go in at all. She stands in a corner, arms folded, and watches them fumble through a set that goes over like a lead balloon with the drunkards. Nobody can hear a thing anyway.
The next gig is a real club, a real bar, something like a real stage. Peter has no idea how it works, but the drummer does and they get set up and plugged in. Peter rubs his wet hands on his jeans and takes a long look at the crowd. Nobody’s looking at them. It’s all smoke and beer and a haze of indifference. Another bad band up to play, maybe worse than the three previous. The three previous were, in Peter’s opinion, quite terrible.
Peter walks up to the mic. “Hi,” he says. “We’re the Time Lords.”
He plays the opening down-sliding notes for “Virginia Plain”, which is the drummer’s cue to wake up. And they’re off. They play some Roxy, Buzzcocks, some Bowie, ending on a cover of “Spiders from Mars” that Peter makes a little heavier than the original. He solos and shows off a bit and when they’re done there’s shouting and the energy of the room makes him feel something he’s never felt before. Everyone is looking at him. The room is his. He grins. Starts playing “My Generation” as an encore because Townsend is the real thing and it’ll give Suzy the bassist a chance to show off too.
Somebody buys him a pint afterwards, while Clara stands guard over his guitar and amp. The other guitarist, the bloke from his printing workshop, is giving him grief about the band name. Calls it posh, not punk enough for them.
“Come to me in the moment,” Peter says. “Dinna care what it means.” He drinks the pint and then another.
Clara isn’t happy about it either, for reasons she will not say a thing about. Says it’s just superstition, but Peter hasn’t ever heard of any superstition like that.
“Better than the Dreamboys,” he says to her, later, when they’re in bed.
His head is spinning from the beer and the excitement of it all, and the only thing that will calm him down enough to sleep is sex. Sex and Clara’s touch and Clara’s voice soothing him.
“I liked that name,” Clara says. “It’s clever.”
“No, it’s not,” he says. He rolls them so she’s on top. He likes this position a lot. He can touch her everywhere when she’s riding him, touch her clit, reach up and cup her breasts in his hands. Give her pleasure. He loves watching her face when they’re having sex, loves seeing her eyes close, loves hearing her moan when he touches her just so. He can’t imagine a time before she was with him, sometimes, can’t imagine existing without her. She surrounds him. She is his very being. He loves her so much. All of his songs are about her. Does she know?
Clara comes, and his heart aches. She is so beautiful with her face screwed up, eyes closed, hair stuck to her sweaty face. He’s close too, not quite there, but a little desperate. He gets his feet under himself and pushes up. She opens her eyes, grinds down, smiles that sweet smile. That’s enough for him. He comes and oh, it is sweet and endless, he is pulsing inside her, giving himself to her. She is the universe, all of space and time, something beyond his comprehension.
He nuzzles into her neck. He doesn’t have words. Clara Clara Clara. Her name echoing in his head. Two bodies in bed, sweaty, tangled up together. He licks her neck and tastes salt.
The next day they’re walking together across George Square, to the obscure doorway that leads to the office where Clara works, doing something or other she won’t tell him much about, for that fellow in the uniform and the mustache. She has to deliver a report, she says, something she spent time typing up on her second-hand Smith-Corona, swearing the whole while about something he can’t quite understand. There’s a better way to do these things, apparently. Clouds scud across a blue sky and Glasgow is as pretty as it gets. Peter smiles up at the sky, beatific.
“Grand city,” he says. “In the summer at least. Going to hate it again come January.”
“I’m going to miss it,” Clara says to him.
He freezes, looks over at her. “You’re leaving me?” His heart is somewhere in his shoes. He’s always known that he isn’t good enough for her. She’ll leave him. They all do.
She squeezes his hand. “No. Not now, not ever. You and me, we’re together in ways you can’t imagine.”
“Then why’d you say that?”
“Because nothing lasts. Some day we’ll be somewhere else, doing something else. And this is fun, the way it is right now.”
It’s true enough: this is fun, and Peter knows she’s right; it can’t last. Some day he’ll get his degree and need to get a real job, because the band isn’t going anywhere. Not with that other guitarist. Clara doesn’t seem to think her job with the military fellow is a steady thing. She says in a few months it’ll be resolved, whatever that means. The Master, she says, will have been dealt with and won’t be a threat. Whatever that means. Clara takes it seriously, though it sounds to Peter like one of the sillier plots from second-rate cinema. Hammer Horror. The Master must be a vampire.
This is bravado. When he hears Clara say that name – and it is a name, not a title – something in his chest seizes up. Adrenaline sparks in his stomach and he wants to run, to hide. He is hiding.
The portfolio show for his degree is taking shape. So much work to do yet, and he has so many ideas. He is bubbling over with them. Music, art, things. He looks squarely at what he’s afraid of and tries to illustrate it. Watercolor and ink, paintings of a man with a goatee, a cartoon villain. A woman who looks like an evil Mary Poppins. This work isn’t good enough for his portfolio, not for the degree show, but it might do the trick for a job in illustration. He’s trying to think ahead, think practically, really he is. Even if he wishes this would never end, this dreamy interlude before his real life begins.
The walls of their flat are covered with his paintings and sketches. He takes up pen and ink and watercolor, which is tricky but satisfying when he can pull it off. The acrylics are reserved for those fierce desert landscapes he struggles with, those spires under the dome, those battles that his teachers say are pure pulp magazine cover material. Not fine art, but definitely a career. This upsets him for reasons he can’t articulate, but he should be happy about it. Magazine cover illustration is lucrative, he’s told. Imagine a world in which he can afford furniture with all its legs intact. Shiny new things. A new guitar.
Peter sacks the drummer after a disastrous gig and replaces him with a boy called Craig who keeps far better time than the one whose name Peter has forgotten already. Craig is a good one, even if he drinks too much before, during, and after his first gig with them and vomits on Peter’s shoes. He’s got some flair, some Moon wild excitement. Peter sobers him up, keeps him sober for a week, and talks to him about comedy, about philosophy, about the books he’s been reading. Craig steadies a little bit, slows down, scares Peter a little bit less. Craig likes dressing up. The rest of the band isn’t so sure about this, but Peter wants them to have a look. An art school look. They’re in art school. They should experiment. He has an idea about what they should do that burns at him.
Clara takes him clothes shopping. He’s got no cash, having upgraded the clapped-out Marshall for a clapped-out Vox, but she offers to stand him something as a present. They go to second-hand shops, charity shops. Clara coaxes him into trying on everything, from women’s clothing to fancy dress to the boring tweed. He finds that he loves this about as much as she does. They jam themselves into changing booths together and he does up the buttons on the backs of her dresses. They giggle and annoy the sales staff, and then Peter charms them into forgiveness. Clara has a very particular taste, at least two steps off from the current fashion, that he finds adorable. She likes the PVC trousers, though, and has the legs for them. So does he. Pipestem legs, she says. PVC trousers and black Docs, yes, wonderful. That’s a look. But he needs something showy on top.
He finds a coat with long tails and a red lining. It’s worn at the sleeves and the lining has torn free but he loves it, stands at the mirror posing with the tails flipped back just enough to show off the lining. Searches through its pockets fruitlessly looking for something that he swears he left in them, even though he hasn’t even paid for it yet. Clara bites her lip when she sees him in it, and looks as if she’s going to protest. But she says nothing and Peter bounces around her in delight.
“It’s all coming together in my head,” he says. “We’re all going to dress like dandies, like lords, yeah? I’m going to write a whole cycle of songs for us, like our own rock opera. A punk opera.”
He has only two new songs written before their next gig, and he hasn’t taught them to anybody else yet, but it’s fun anyway because Craig is happy to join him in a long coat and boots and so is Suzy the bassist. Craig ends up shirtless and sweating by the end of the night anyway because that is the life of a drummer: all leaping about and howling and beating things. Peter is just as hot, just as drenched, just as thirsty for lager afterwards. Clara drags him home after the gig before he can celebrate by drinking more than a pint with Craig, reminding him that he’s got class in the morning. Which he does. He glares at her but obeys.
He always does what Clara wants. She has him wrapped around her little finger. It’s not a trial, not really. He loves her madly and he no longer cares if it’s not punk. Clara, Clara, Clara, his sweet lover, his sweet muse.
How did he meet Clara? Oh, the cafe. He was sitting at the window nursing a cup of tea, thinking over the money in his pocket and whether he dared visit the bookshop. And there she was, asking him if he minded sharing the table, smiling at him in a way that made him feel as if he’d known her all his life.
He makes her a cup of tea when they get home because she’s got to finish a report for her work tomorrow, which she didn’t finish earlier because she’d been busy driving the van with their gear in it to and from the gig. Peter thinks about getting high and painting, but doesn’t. She’s right. He’s got class in the morning. He goes to bed before she does, tosses and turns and pounds the pillows and then finally falls asleep.
He dreams, as always, of strange things. Strange places. A home he cannot visit. Countless people who are lost to him. A ship that steals him and adopts him. Tears in rain. A boy crashing a spaceship into the Yucatán. A man in armor flying into the sky and exploding. Clara leaving him to be with the dead man. Clara. Leaving him. She doesn’t see him. She doesn’t know him. He sees her face staring at him in shock, smells smoke. His kidneys are the wrong color. They’re crashing.
“Wake up, Peter,” she says. “Wake up.” She’s shaking him. “You’re having a nightmare.”
“We were crashing,” he says to her. “You had a thing on your face that was eating your brain and we were crashing and I couldn’t save you and you couldn’t see me. Clara. Fuck. What’s going on in my head?”
“It’s just a nightmare.”
But it’s not. It was all real.
The sheets are tangled around his legs and he kicks at them. He sits up in bed, runs his hands through his hair, over and over. He leans against the wall at his side of the bed, presses his forehead against it, trying to cool down. Calm down. Clara rubs a hand up and down his back. He’s afraid to tell her how bad it is. The things in his head are so real but he knows they can’t be. Is he going mad? Are they going to have to lock him up?
“Peter, sweetie. Talk to me.”
“Can I make love to you? Please. I need you. Clara.”
“Oh, Peter,” she says. “Yes.”
And he clutches at her and rolls onto her. He pushes into her before she’s ready but she doesn’t complain, just wraps her legs around his waist and enfolds him. He lies there, on top of her, inside her, unmoving, and whimpers. He wants to climb inside her. He wants to be one being with her. He wants her to know his innermost self, to be one mind with him. It’s unbearable how much he wants it. Listening to her, he gets the music; gazing at her, he gets the heat. He is worthless and useless and a complete failure and going mad and why does she love him? But she does love him.
Who is he, anyway? He is Peter. He is a student. He is an artist. He is a musician. He is going to do something big someday. He is going to stand on a stage in front of everybody and make things happen. Right now he can’t do that. Right now it’s impossible. Right now it’s all he can do to know who he is, who it is he sees when he looks in the mirror.
“Don’t let go,” he says to Clara, and she tightens her grip on him.
“I’ve got you. It’s okay. I’m not letting go ever.”
It’s dark in the flat and silent except for the bed creaking and the little sounds Clara makes as they move together. She’s so warm under him, around him. He’s sweating. He’s crying. Nothing is right. Everything is right. What is going on? Why is he so shattered inside? He’s just an art student. Nothing in his life should feel like this. He wants to paint and play music and get high and love this woman.
He’s still crying when he comes but it’s different, he’s found some peace. It’s happy crying. Oh, it feels good, so good. This is a thing he wants too. He wants Clara to be his wife, to bear his children, to be with him forever. She can’t be, he knows this. He outlives all of them. But maybe, maybe he can have this one thing. This once. The universe owes him.
He works like a demon the next day. Class, study, reading, work on his degree show. It’s a ways away but he wants to shine through it. He has ideas for a series of paintings about a robot invasion of London. They are an eerie combination of zombies and machinery, as he sees it: metal-clad bodies erupting from the earth and jetting into the sky to immolate themselves over the dome of St Paul’s. This idea makes Clara go very quiet and she takes herself off for a walk on her own. To let him work, she says, without distraction. Peter should be worried about her, he knows, but he’s too consumed by the images in his head.
When she gets back hours later, with the week’s shopping in her arms, he’s switched to tinkering with his amplifier. He’s taken it apart and strewn the pieces out over the tatty carpet and the love seat.
“It’s completely inefficient,” he says to her. “Designed by a pudding brain. I don’t have the tools to fix it properly. My screwdriver is missing.”
“Your screwdriver?” There’s alarm in her face.
“Yeah. The Philips head one. I also need a new soldering iron. This one is pants.”
Clara looks relieved. He doesn’t understand why.
Peter moodily reassembles the amplifier. It’s child’s play, the work of a few minutes. He’s merely frustrated by his poor tools. There’s a better way, he knows. Better technology. It’s like when Clara was complaining about having to type on the little Smith-Corona. He sees another kind of screwdriver, one that vibrates in his hand and responds to his thoughts and works on anything. It’s pure science fiction, yes, but something in him believes it truly exists. He’s stopped wondering how he knows these things. Either they’re true or he’s going slowly mad. Schizophrenia, probably. He’s lost his ability to care.
Autumn comes. The days shorten and cool. The city turns gray. The river is a sheet of steel. Peter sets up an easel in the rain and paints it. He feels an urgency that he can’t explain. His head is worse than it was, but not every day. Most days it’s okay. Most days he can stave it off with drink or smoke or sex.
He’s curled up on the love seat, in bare feet and jeans, writing song lyrics for the rock opera. His latest painting of the domed city is still wet in the corner of the room, which reeks of linseed oil and turps. He’s pretty sure if he sparked one his t-shirt would go up in a ball of flame too, which would be tragi-comic. He finds this amusing enough sketch it out: the flame, the cinder of a man he’d be afterward. He draws himself with flames for hair and eyebrows.
He rubs at his forehead. He’s seeing sparkles instead of the paper. “Clara,” he says.
His head throbs, one long painful pulse.
When he comes to, he’s flat on his back on floor, with his feet elevated on the love seat. His face is wet: Clara has just poured a glass of water on him. He splutters and wipes his face off. He head feels strange even now. He swears, one bitter word aimed at the ceiling.
“Yeah,” she said. “Seconded. You okay?”
Clara lays her hand on his chest, over his heart. Peter curls his hand over hers and presses it tight. If she stops touching him, he will lose everything. He knows this.
“Tell me. Describe the symptoms.”
“My head,” he says to her. “Need to go to the doc. Shouldn’t hurt like this, should it? Not if I haven’t been drinking.”
“No, no, it shouldn’t be hurting like this. I think this means we’re out of time here. I think we have to end it, but I’m not sure it’s safe. ”
“What does that even mean?” He’s too drained to press her about it. He closes his eyes and lies there. His head throbs with his pulse. His pulse doesn’t feel right. Too simple.
“This is beyond ridiculous. It has to end now. It’s not working the way you thought it would.”
Clara leaves the flat, headed for the nearest phone box to call someone, she doesn’t tell him who. Ten minutes later there’s a jeep in the street below, with the markings of some organization called UNIT, and Clara’s boss jumps out. Clara is with him. There are underlings with them both, men in uniforms whom Peter bristles to see. Guns, they’re carrying guns. Why guns for him? Is he dangerous? Is he violent? But then they’re out of sight in the street, and Clara is opening their flat door and coming up the steps with the prig-Brig, red cap, swagger stick, mustache. Peter folds his arms and glares. Swagger stick, forsooth. Who carries a swagger stick in 1979?
“It should be safe to restore him now,” the prig-Brig says to Clara. “The Doctor did something rather drastic. Or rather, the Master responded rather drastically. There was a plasma. A fire. Not quite a regeneration. Anyway, he’s fled. Definitively.”
“Just in time. He’s starting to dream about things too vividly. And he’s got the headaches.”
“He’s right in the room with you.” Peter glowers.
“Do you have the watch?”
“Yeah,” Clara says. She kneels by the love seat and reaches up underneath it. She pulls out a golden fob-watch on a long thick chain.
“You can restore him any time, I think.”
“He should do it,” she says to her employer, the prig in the uniform. “I can’t bear it.”
“Do what?” Peter says.
“Just – just wind it. Oh God, now that it’s come to it, I can’t – I almost couldn’t bear it when you did it, but now the thought of undoing it makes me–”
“Makes you what? Clara!” He touches her cheek. He doesn’t care if the military pudding-head is watching. He loves her.
But she’s set her face now in that determined look Peter has come to know. There’s no dissuading her from whatever it she has planned. “The watch. Doctor. Take the watch and use it.”
“What’s so special about the watch?”
“Take it. Take it.”
Peter holds out his hand, and Clara sets the watch into it. A pocket watch, an old-fashioned fob watch. It’s gold and has a gold chain, butter-smooth. Heavy. It’s heavier than it ought to be in his hands. Gold, yes, but gold doesn’t have that density. It’s warm. It throbs, as if it’s alive. It is terrifying and fascinating and it belongs to him. He made this thing. How does he know that?
“What is this?” he says, and he looks sharply at the prig-Brig.
The Brig opens his mouth, but Clara cuts him off with a gesture. “It’s the answer to all your questions,” she says. Why is she crying?
He cups the watch in his hand and pushes the button. The lid swings open to reveal a white face with black Roman numerals. Behind them are faint markings that are more important: circular symbols that he feels have deep meaning. He can see his face in the glass, faintly, see how he’s furrowed his brows.
The watch ticks. The second hand moves: one two three. The time is correct, he notes, mechanically. He takes the winding knob between thumb and forefinger, breathes in, out. He winds once, twice. The second hand trembles, hesitates. He turns the knob. The second hand trembles. He presses the knob. Peter watches the hand freeze, watches time stop.
The mirror shatters.
The very fabric of time and space explodes out from his mind, slicing through him, a million slivers of scattered self falling around him.
It’s like death, except it’s not.
It’s like rebirth except it’s not.
It’s like regeneration, except it’s not.
It is, in fact, exactly the opposite of regeneration. The body stays the same but the mind is reborn and renewed within. A shell breaks. The shell is Peter. Another man shoulders his way out, kicks aside the shards. A second heart begins to beat. The revealed man draws a deep breath, pauses–
The Doctor lets out his breath and opens his eyes.
He runs his hand over his face. Same shape it was before, same over-eager nose. He still has all that hair standing up. And the back of his hand confirms that his body is still a young man’s. No physical changes, then. Pity. Nothing to be done about the clothing in the moment, either. At least he still has the eyebrows. He straightens up, pulls his shoulders back, reaches down to tug his ragged, paint-stained shirt straight.
“Clara?” he says. “Clara?”
“Right here.” There she is, a hand on his arm, round face tilted up at him, great brown eyes swimming with tears. He feels something tense coiled up in his stomach relax. She hasn’t fled.
“TARDIS?” he says.
“Hidden in the basement.”
Another deep part of him relaxes. “Right. The Master?”
“Your current incarnation, the one with the scarf, burned him to a crisp. Again. He – you – said you were pretty sure he didn’t actually die and regenerate.”
“He never does,” the Doctor murmurs. Yes, he remembers this incident. The Brig was at pains to keep him away from the temporal shimmers in Glasgow, saying it was a UNIT experiment in motion, nothing of interest. Keeping him well away from himself, to avoid chronological havoc. Well, now he’s seen the other side of the matter.
He turns to the Brigadier, to Lethbridge-Stewart. Dark hair, only a few lines in his face. Wedding ring on his finger. Not a young man, but a man in his prime. He is actually holding a swagger stick. No wonder Peter loathed him.
The Brig puffs himself up. “Well, young man, seems you’re safe now.”
The Doctor cocks an eyebrow at the Brigadier in a glare that has all the power of two thousand years of practice. The Brig staggers, actually steps back, and harrumphs. And then the Doctor repents, reminds himself what Kate will tell him years from now about what this man had always wanted. Something won’t allow him to salute, even so. Instead he opens his arms wide and crushes Alistair to his bony chest, thumps his back.
“Good to see you, old friend,” he murmurs, into Alistair’s uniformed shoulder. He’s solid and warm and human, and he is both surprised and delighted by the embrace. The Doctor will not say, will never say, that in his experience of temporal continuity the Brig is long dead, that this face has never seen the face that was so precious to his previous selves until this very moment. It is a reunion that time might never again allow him, so he lets himself sink into it, teases Alistair with little hints about the future, about his Tiger – already with them as a ferocious little girl. They reminisce, catch up, exchange words of advice for the other about current threats. The Doctor gets more details than he’d known before about this particular appearance of his one-time friend.
When the Brigadier leaves them at last, the Doctor turns to Clara ready to be embarrassed but instead she is smiling at him as if she’s proud of him. He knows that look. He’s learned it. He’s got a page in his 2000-year diary about that look. (Peter, he thinks, knew that look without needing to catalog it.) Clara. Clara. The face that this face imprinted upon. The face that this face will always see wherever it looks, whether she was there in the flesh or not. Clara.
He wants to touch her, to pick her up and spin her around and lay her down upon that love seat again. But he can’t. He’s not the one she did that with.
“Thank you,” he says to her, a little more stiffly than he means to. He knows he’s back to being awkward with her, and that she’ll hate it, but he can’t help but remember her naked, astride him. The vulnerability of it. The things he’d said. No, not him. Peter. The things Peter had said. Peter said them, not him, and he needs to put them behind himself and move on. Forget all about it. It didn’t happen. Best policy.
“You warned me,” Clara says. “Right before the chameleon arch did its thing. But I wasn’t ready for it. Nothing would have prepared me.”
“It was unpredictable this time. I changed the usual parameters drastically, because she, er – she would have known otherwise.”
“You thought it would undo everything. When you restored yourself.”
He shrugs, and conveniently fails to mention that he was wrong. She knows it anyway, and will rub it in when she feels his ego needs to be restrained a little bit. He doesn’t want to deprive her of that pleasure.
“The transition,” she says. He arches an eyebrow at her. “Watching you come back to yourself. It was like – it was like you were being possessed. You and Peter, fighting for control. I guess you won?”
“Peter,” he says, grimly, “no longer exists.”
He shakes his head. Then he sees that Clara is grieving. She loved Peter. Not him, but Peter. She had never gone to bed with him in his older face, the gray-haired one. Peter, though, Peter she liked. He aches for her and he aches even more for himself. He wants to hold Clara again, the way Peter held her, see her face smiling at him, see her in the throes with him, him, not Peter.
He says, curtly, “I’m sorry. I know you liked him.”
“Yeah, I liked him. He was sweet. But I think – I think I liked him because he was you. So very you. So earnest and passionate and dedicated to something bigger than himself.”
She lays a hand on his chest, between his hearts. It’s so warm against him that it burns. Two hearts, one human hand. He touches it, fingers against hers. He wants to believe this.
She’s looking down, not meeting his eyes. “I know it’s hard for you. I know it’s too much to ask. But I liked it, being with him. But I loved him because he let me love him. ”
The Doctor closes his eyes so he can’t see Clara’s face. He wishes for his sunglasses. For a hug, so his face was hidden. For anything other than this youthful face with its openness, its mobility. “He’s gone. I can’t help that. Everything he was, everything he wanted.”
“Are you sure?”
He opens his eyes and looks down at her. “What do you mean?”
“I think everything Peter did came from somewhere in here.” She taps his chest. “I think he’s not gone because he’s always been there.”
He spins away from her and paces around their sitting room. Paintings leaning in the corners, ripped out sheets of sketchbook tacked to the walls. Clara’s books stacked under one corner of the love seat. The disused hearth, in which more canvas frames are stacked. His bong is on the mantel, next to a stack of Rotosounds packets and a pillar candle that has welded itself into place with melted wax. Their lives together.
He touches the ragged blue coat with the torn red lining. Peter pranced about on stage in that, like a dandy. Showing off to Clara. As he showed off to Clara, back in the TARDIS when he first tried to persuade her to travel with him. Peter loved that coat. He strokes down the sleeve. There’s a crumpled pack of fags hidden in the breast pocket, he knows, filched from Craig and squirreled away for emergencies. Moments of drunkenness when Clara wasn’t there to disapprove. A stash of quite a lot of pot hidden in the Vox, in the compartment where the spare fuses were. He grins despite himself, thinking about it.
The Les Paul is there, by the love seat, leaning against the clapped out Vox. He’ll repair it. Fix it up. Make it perfect. It is as precious to him as anything else in the TARDIS is. Why? Peter is dead. Peter never existed. Why should he care about what Peter loved? And yet he does. He touches his chest through the paint-stained t-shirt, and lets himself feel it. The joy, the inventive fervor, the addiction to standing on a stage in front of a crowd.
Peter loved Clara. It is something he has in common with him.
It’s like sunlight peeking through the clouds over the city, the thought of Clara and how much he loves her. And at that moment he knows Clara is right: everything that Peter was, everything that Peter did came from him. From his hearts. Everything. The songs, the prancing, the painting, the loving.
The Doctor smiles and turns to Clara, stretches out his hand to her. “Come on,” he says, impatiently, “we’ve got to get all my paintings into the TARDIS. And my guitar.”
“Yes, my paintings.”
Human warmth. One heart, so fragile, so full of passion. He’d almost been unable contain how much passion during that year as Peter Capaldi, art student. He reaches up and touches his ear and is relieved to find the earring there. Peter Capaldi, with the little gold ring in his ear, put there by Clara Oswald. It is now in the Doctor’s ear, and there it will stay.