In the often erratic time and space machine called Tardis, the interior of which confounded all but the most refined logic by being many times larger than the exterior, the white-haired old traveller called Dr Who and his granddaughter Susan stood by the craft’s six-sided control panel, getting their breath back.
‘That was very close, Grandfather,’ Susan gasped. She was a slender young girl with short, dark hair and elfin features.
‘I can’t disagree with that, child,’ the Doctor replied, with feeling.
'We nearly lost the Ship for good.’
‘Quite so, quite so.’ Dr Who stroked his chin thoughtfully. ‘A fascinating world, though. Quite fascinating.’
Susan flashed him a quirky, engaging grin. ‘I loved the copper-coloured sky.’
Dr Who smiled fondly at her. They were two of a kind. The quest for knowledge and new experiences was always uppermost and the related dangers were invariably risen above. Their escape from the planet Quinnis, in the Fourth Universe, had nonetheless been especially tight. Very tight indeed.
Perhaps they would both benefit from a period of rest. He could make a few repairs to the Tardis at the same time. He smiled as he suddenly recalled the occasion when Susan had made up the unusual name of their remarkable craft from the initial letters of Time and Relative Dimensions in Space.
They had spoken of having a little relaxation quite a few times before, of course, but the idea had only rarely come to fruition.
‘We do have a tendency to run into trouble,’ he admitted.
Perhaps that was inevitable, thought Susan, for two wanderers through the fourth and fifth dimensions.
Scenes from their recent destinations flitted across her mind. Tudor England; Grandfather throwing a parson’s nose at King Henry VIII to induce the enormous and terrifying monarch to commit them to the Tower of London, where they had left the Ship; their unusually tranquil stay at Jabalhabad, India in 1843; the colourful and eventful reminiscences of Siger Holmes, British Army officer and father-to-be of the famous Sherlock; a Zeppelin raid at Burton-upon-Trent in 1916; Hilda Hogg, a young cook, sheltering them in her employers’ kitchen; the green planet called Esto; the earsplitting screeches from two telepathic plants when she stood between them and unintentionally cut off their communication.
The high-pitched grinding sound that accompanied materialisation filled the room, then died away as the round glass column in the centre of the control panel ceased to rise and fall. They had arrived at another destination already.
Dr Who turned on the scanner-screen, but it displayed only flickering, horizontal white lines on a black background.
Susan sighed. ‘That’s something else out of order.’
‘How very tiresome,’ grumbled the Doctor.
‘The air is breathable.’ Susan looked up from the controls. ‘Shall we risk a look outside?’
Dr Who responded by turning a black switch. The great doors swung open and they stepped cautiously into the new environment.
The Tardis possessed the ability to change its outside appearance to blend with new surroundings. It had now assumed the shape of a blue police telephone box, rather old and battered, and stood in a dilapidated yard that was positively choked with a wide range of junk.
‘A rag and bone yard,’ the Doctor told Susan.
Susan laughed. ‘A what?’
‘A scrapyard. A repository for discarded items,’ elucidated Dr Who.
‘Items to be destroyed?’
‘The idea is to resell them.’
Susan regarded the merchandise on offer doubtfully.
‘One can live in hope, if only to die in despair,’ chuckled the Doctor.
‘I expect this ‘Police Public Call Box’ the Ship has become must be a typical piece of surplus equipment to be found in a place like this, then, Grandfather.’
Dr Who was actually by no means convinced that this was so. He was somewhat disturbed by the disguise his camouflage circuit had selected. If the craft had materialised on a street corner it would have been understandable. He hoped this odd choice wasn’t an indication that the circuit was on the verge of malfunctioning completely. It would be decidedly inconvenient if the Tardis became stuck as a police box. He hastily brushed the thought aside. Then it occurred to him that this totter’s yard might possibly be in London, where, if he recalled alright, such call boxes were to be found for some years. Perhaps the circuit had misidentified the landing site only by a matter of yards? That would be some comfort, at least.
They wandered around the covered yard, fascinated by the sheer multiplicity of objects.
‘What’s that big brown pottery thing?’ Susan queried, pointing.
‘That, Larn my dear…’The Doctor broke off, having caught Susan’s eye. Her original name still occasionally slipped out of his mouth instead of the one she had chosen for herself.
‘That,’ he resumed, ‘is a pancheon. You make wine in it. Home-made wine, which can be very potent, you know.’ He nodded reminiscently. ‘I really must make some more of my parsnip elixir. Yes, indeed.’ He paused. ‘The pancheon is made of terracotta clay.’
There was a Victorian walnut credenza decorated with marquetry. Kitchen tools with chipped red and white handles had been deposited with their metal rack in a rust-scarred jam kettle. A large, rather dark painting depicted several brown hens, Leghorns by the look of them, pecking away in a farmyard. Dr Who’s attention lingered on it.
‘Hopefully not a Hondekoeter,’ he muttered.
Susan heard him. ‘Why, Grandfather?’
‘Because, child, it is leaning against a very damp-looking wall.’
‘Oh, yes, I see what you mean.’
A hacking cough nearby startled them. A gate at the back of the yard, the Doctor now noticed, was ajar. When he pushed it fully open he beheld an area open to the elements and occupied by more durable items than those inside. Two men, one tall and broad, maybe in his thirties, his scruffy apparel including a flat cap, the other small, old and thin, wearing an ancient black overcoat and matching trilby, both looking furtive, were standing by a pile of scrap metal. The younger fellow was about to add part of a bicycle.
‘I see you’ve found something you’re interested in.’
Both men all but leapt from the ground as Dr Who spoke. The older one recovered quickly. ‘What’s it got to do with you?’ he demanded aggressively. ‘This is Isaac Foreman’s Yard and you’re not ‘im. I knew Isaac from the London Totters’ Annual Knees Up. He snuffed it three weeks ago.’ Defiantly, the old relic lit a cigarette.
‘This person seems most uncouth,’ the Doctor commented audibly to Susan.
‘What’s that terrible smell?’ Susan enquired suddenly, waving a hand in front of her face.
The younger man jerked his head towards the old. ‘My dad makes his own tobacco, wiv’ horse manure and shredded ‘bus tickets.’ He tendered his disreputable parent a withering look. ‘I’m afraid he’s a very dirty old man.’
‘My granddaughter and I are occupying this yard for the time being,’ the Doctor loftily informed the purloining totters. ‘Shall we say five shillings for that metal?’
‘Five!’ expostulated old Albert Steptoe. ‘Tell him where to stuff ‘is rubbish, ‘Arold!’
‘Done,’ agreed Harold Steptoe, their delicate situation in mind and steadfastly ignoring his permanently exasperating old father. ‘Steptoe and Son always pay a fair price,’ he added ingratiatingly, causing Albert to roll his eyes in despair.
‘I’m glad to hear it, young man,’ Dr Who told him, rather tartly. He caught Susan’s reproachful look and was thus reminded that he was being no more straightforward than the unsavoury-looking pair before them. ‘I do hope,’ he hastily added in a more conciliatory tone, ‘that we can transact further business in future to our mutual benefit, h’mm?’
‘Oh, indubitably,’ Harold responded, who liked to think of himself as erudite.
‘Oh, gawd!’ mocked Albert, who enjoyed puncturing his son’s pretensions.
With difficulty, Harold resisted a familiar impulse to get his hands around the old git’s scrawny neck and half choke him to death. As early as breakfast that morning, the first words the skinny little sod had spoken, deliberately calculated to wind him up, had more than served their purpose. Then came the suggestion that Harold should forget the usual round with the horse and cart today and that instead they should both make a hopefully profitable visit to Number Seventy Six, Totters Lane, Shoreditch, where the premises of the late lamented Isaac Foreman were likely to be unattended. Now, after suffering the company of his pernickety pater for even more time than normally, his reward was the necessity of paying out to extricate them from the embarrassment of being copped red-handed by another gimlet-eyed old cove.
In the face of the day’s veritable mountain of irritation, he nevertheless managed to avoid grinding his teeth just yet and summoned a twitchy smile for the Doctor as he handed him two half-crowns.
Old Albert brushed past them both. ‘I ‘ope there’s a khazi ‘ere somewhere,’ he said loudly, ‘cos I’m burstin’ an’ if there ain’t watch out if yer pick up a vase.’
Harold cringed and hurriedly began to pick up his purchases.
After Hercules the horse had pulled cart, Steptoes and old iron away from Totters Lane, clip-clopping his way back to Number Twenty Four, Oil Drum Lane, Shepherd’s Bush, Dr Who eyed Susan thoughtfully.
‘I think, my dear,’ he announced after some moments, ‘that we might settle here for a time while I make a few repairs to the Ship. Perhaps we could arrange to further your education in some way as well.’
He paused to draw his cloak more closely about him. There was a chill in the air, he decided.
‘In the meantime,’ he went on with a smile, glancing down at the coins in his hand, ‘we’ll make a little café, bacon sandwiches and a pot of tea our first objective, shall we, h’mm?’