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Auld Acquaintance

By David Bishop

NOTE: Brief Encounters was a regular feature in Doctor Who Magazine. Each installment featured one or more established Doctor Who characters in a short piece of fiction. David Bishop's submission appeared in DWM 169. This version is the original, longer piece with a title supplied by David (the DWM version is untitled).

‘Funny old thing, time.’

I turned, and found a strange little man standing beside me. He was dressed in sombre clothes and had a black umbrella hooked into his jacket top pocket. His voice had a hint of Scots about it but his slightly rotund shortish stature and a mischievous twinkle in his eye reminded me more of a leprechaun.

‘Sorry?’ I stammered, taken aback by the sudden appearance of this person by my side.

‘I was just commenting on what a funny old thing it is - time,’ he elaborated, hands jammed in his pants pockets. ‘Sometimes the years seem to rush by, and other times a glorious day can last until eternity.’

‘Quite,’ I ventured, uncertain of whether I really wanted a conversation with this puckish person. He was not a vagrant, nor did he seem at all dangerous but there was an uneasiness about him that hung like a great burden. Still, I had locked up the old observatory for the last time and there was no rush to get home. Why not?

‘Of course, today is a very special day in terms of time,’ I heard myself saying.

‘Yes, the end of a millennia!’ enthused the little man. He turned to me and his eyes were ablaze with a sudden passion. ‘A special moment, a time to be savoured!’

‘There were times when I thought we'd be lucky to see it.’

‘You're not so old yet!’ replied the rapscallion-faced man.

‘No, I meant wars and bombs and things. Life seems so much more dangerous than before, everything changing all the time. Even this observatory, which has marked the passing of time for so many decades and centuries, is being closed down. It makes me angry!’

‘I must confess, I got quite overexcited, shaking my walking stick for emphasis and found myself a little out of breath. But my new companion was patient and waited until I recovered before speaking again. A few heavy drops of moisture began to fall from the dusk sky.

‘It's starting to rain,’ he observed and opened his umbrella. ‘I'll walk down to Greenwich with you.’

We began walking slowly down the hill, taking our time, savouring the sights and smells of a mid-winter evening.

‘And what brings you to Greenwich at the end of this era?’ I asked the little man.

‘Several things. I wanted to visit an old friend but he was out when I called at his house. And my young friend Ace wanted a new pair of Doc Martens and London is the best place in the Universe to buy them, according to her. I decided to pass the time by visiting the home of time itself, the Prime Meridian.’

By now we were at the edge of the park and I turned to look back up the hill to the observatory, just visible through the trees.

‘They're closing it down, you know. I've been a research scientist there since 1965 and now they're closing it down!’ I could only shake my head in dismay.

Don't worry, the King will have it reopened within two years and your research grant is going to be doubled,’ confided the mysterious man. The shower had passed and he closed his umbrella. ‘Well, I must be getting on. Ace should have her boots by now and I promised her we'd see in the new millennia at Trafalgar Square.’

Something was nagging at me and I had to mention it. ‘You know, you seem awfully familiar - have I met you before?’

‘I think so - perhaps when you were a teacher. Goodbye.’ With a smile and a twinkle in his eye, he turned and walked away.

I watched him go then started for home myself. I racked my memory but still could not place a name to his face. There was just something about his manner, his bearing that awoke times of old. And how did he know what the King would do about the observatory? The coronation wasn't taking place until the summer. Oh well, time for tea.

I was home a few minutes later and went inside, taking off my overcoat and warming my hands at the open fire. From the sitting room my wife called out a greeting.

‘I met the strangest little man today. He seemed to know all sorts of things,’ I told her. ‘I know I've never met him before but I could swear I knew him.’

I described him to her and she said it sounded just like a friendly man who called earlier for me while I was out.

‘I've just remembered, he left a package,’ she said and went into the kitchen to fetch it.

I sat down in my favourite chair and breathed in the scent of a lovely roast chicken dinner. Moments later Barbara came back into the room with a long, flat rectangular box wrapped in paper festooned with the words ‘Many happy returns’.

‘Well, open it,’ she said impatiently. As I tussled with the paper, she mused aloud. ‘You know, I had the same feeling too - like I'd met him somehow before...’

I unravelled the mysteries of the wrapping and pulled off the lid of the box.

Inside was a large card emblazoned with the words ‘Happy New Year - The Doctor’ Underneath was a piece of coloured fabric that brought flooding back memories of times long past but not forgotten, of my first teaching job and of the strange circumstances that brought Barbara and I together.

It was a Coal Hill School tie.

This item appeared in TSV 21 (February 1991).

Index nodes: Fiction
Reprinted in: TSV: The Best of Issues 21-26