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Once upon a Time on a Lonely Hill...

By Francis Cooke

The fireworks were done with, and all but the children had decided to kick back and relax. The adults had formed a semicircle a small way away from the bonfire, and were chatting about many things no one else cared about much. A bunch of teenagers danced to a techno heartbeat, emanating from a large portable cassette recorder they had placed in their circle. Another group of teenagers had claimed the adults' outdoor stereo system, and were swapping gossip (and outright lies) while listening to a Mariah Carey CD. Meanwhile, one child had discovered that if you got your own stick and held it in the fire long enough it would catch alight, and that you could parade it around showing your power with the orange flame. Now a huge crowd of children were running around the bonfire, sticks held high, ignoring all the warnings from their parents.

Debbie was bored. She had tried running round the fire with all her friends, holding a burning stick, but her mother, more forceful than most, had dragged her away. Apparently her dress could catch fire oh-so-easily, and her mother was horrified that she would engage in such barbaric activities. Debbie didn't understand most of that, but her mother had said that if she did it again she would get a spanking. And while Debbie didn't know if her mother would spank her in front of her friends, she didn't want to take the risk.

So she had wandered around the garden, trying to look into various groups. The Mariah Carey listeners had made it quite clear to her that she was not wanted, and while the techno dancers were slightly more welcoming, she felt a little embarrassed in their midst. She had sat at her father's side for a while, listening to his conversation, but it was all boring stuff about his work at the office, so again she had moved on. Now all she could do was sit on the steps of the house, watching everyone else.

Boring, boring, boring. Debbie decided she would find something else to do. She cast her eyes around for something, anything, to do that would take away the boredom. Nothing in the large garden, but her eyes flitted up to the hill beyond the Johnson's fence. She had a small voice in her mind that told her that her mother would probably be angry if she went out of the Johnson's garden and up the hill, but Debbie knew that all she wanted to do was go up the hill, look down on everyone else, and then come back. If her mother didn't see her leave or return she would be all right. And besides, she had turned six last year, and was a big girl. She could look after herself.

She didn't stop to think about whether it was all that necessary to go up the hill - she wanted to go up it and look down on the rest of them like one of the gods Mrs Wilkinson showed them at school. Then she would go straight back down and that was that.

No need to worry, no need to fear, it's hill climbing time and Debbie's here.

Smiling, she slipped unnoticed through the fence and began to clamber up the hill, taking long, wide steps in the tall grass.

She was halfway up before she beard heavy breathing behind her. Roger was running up the hill behind her, panting and wheezing.

He pulled out his In-hey-la -

Roger had asthma, and although Debbie didn't exactly know what that was she knew that his In-hey-la helped him with it. When he had first got it, Roger had paraded it round the schoolyard, taking small sucks at it and explaining to everyone what it was and how it helped him with his asthma. He had done this for days until Mrs Wilkinson had asked Roger to please stop using it so much in class, and that she was sure he didn't need it as much as he thought he did. A lot of the class had laughed, and Roger went red and put it away. Since then it had only made occasional appearances.

- and took a few quick sucks on it, then clambered the final few steps to where she was waiting. ‘Where're you going?’ he asked, with a slight wheeze still affecting his voice.

Debbie considered. She could of course tell Roger that it was none of his business where she was going, and to leave her alone, but she decided she didn't want to do that. Roger was all right... at least when he wasn't playing soldiers with his other friends. And if she told him to go away he would probably go straight back down to the bonfire and tell her mother where she was. Debbie didn't want that.

She motioned to the top of the hill. Roger looked up, and she knew he was considering whether to ask why she wanted to go all that way.

Wisely, he kept his mouth shut. He too could see the attraction of looking down on the garden like a commander about to launch an attack, and so he continued his trudge up the hill, Debbie beside him.

The grass got shorter as they went up, and when they finally reached the top it was a soft green carpet. Sitting down, Debbie was finally able to stare down at the garden and it occupants. Straining her eyes, she managed to pick out her mother... or was it? She couldn't really tell. The main landmark was the bonfire, where for nearly an hour they had lit sky rockets and watch them scream up into the darkness, before exploding in huge showers of brilliant light. It was beginning to die now, but many of the children continued to dance around it now uttering a tribal chant which was helped along by the heartbeat of the techno dancers' music. She could see that some of her friends had gone away from the fire, and were wandering around absent-mindedly, as she had been before. She thought maybe she should go down and join them before her mother decided she was missing, but she wanted to stay up here a little longer.

Roger was standing, surveying the garden below. He was imagining having twenty stealth commandos behind him, and how he would mutter a codeword before they all wriggled down the hill, guns clasped to their chests as they picked out the targets they would shoot when they ran into the garden - then he glanced down at Debbie. She was sitting, her eyes a little glazed over, staring down at the field. He decided he must look a little silly standing up there and flopped down beside her, commandos forgotten.

They sat for a while, silent. Debbie was trying to work out which figure down in the garden was her father, while Roger was wondering if he could get out of all the ridicule at school tomorrow. Roger had been running around the bonfire with a burning stick, but like Debbie, his mother was a little more safety conscious than most. She had dragged him away from the fire and threatened him with a spanking, but Roger had gone back to the bonfire when she wasn't looking. And after she had dragged him out from the mass of stick-holding, yelling children three more times she had spanked him, right in front of his friends. Roger didn't know what to do - he could avoid his friends for the next few days, or maybe when they started teasing him about it he could abuse his mother with all the bad words he knew (and he had learned a few in his short time on the Earth).

Both were so preoccupied with their thoughts that they failed to hear the man come up behind them.

Debbie was the first to notice. The man's shadow fell in the short gap between them, and climbed up their sides and over their shoulders. She swung round quickly to find him standing above them.

He was tall, with long brown locks failing down to his shoulders. He was wearing some of the strangest clothes Debbie had ever seen, and was, as Roger had been before, staring ahead of him, lost in some deep dream. Roger noticed the shadow across his shoulder suddenly, and swung his head round to see the man. He too sat entranced for a few seconds, taking in the man, before he tentatively leaned forward and tugged on his pants leg.

The man jumped, and then looked down at the two of them. Debbie was quite certain that he had never seen them when he got to the top of the hill. She supposed when you were that tall you didn't have to take much notice of the world around you.

Now the man was looking at them, taking them in, and for a moment Debbie was scared. Her mother had of course told her about the Bad Men Out There, and how she must be very careful to avoid them, and never go anywhere with them, even if they offered you sweets. The words about the Bad Men Out There were still being hammered into her head, and if she had been but a year or two older the process would have been complete. If she had been eight she probably would have been running down the hill before she could even take in his appearance. But she was six, and of course knew instinctively that she liked the man. And even if her mother's voice inside her head told that he could easily be one of the Bad Men Out There, it was quelled by the six-year-old voice that said that the adult voice was silly, that it didn't know what Debbie the six-year-old knew.

She stayed.

The man had finished his inventory of them it seemed. ‘May I?’ he asked, motioning to the space between them. Debbie obligingly moved aside, and the man sat down, hugging his knees and staring around at both of them. ‘Where do you come from?’ he asked suddenly, staring at Debbie.

Debbie pointed down at the garden. ‘We were down there - but it was boring, and we weren't allowed to do what we wanted to. So we came up here.’

The man seemed to consider this for a moment. ‘What was it you wanted to do?’ he asked.

‘We wanted to play with the fire,’ said Roger, lifting his head. ‘But my mum said I couldn't. She said I'd get burnt.’

The man turned his attention to Roger. ‘Do you know anything about fire?’ he asked.

Roger was confused by this question. ‘It's hot... and it keeps you warm,’ he said, working out the words as he went along. Realising how he sounded, he fell quiet.

‘Fire's a dangerous thing,’ said the man. ‘You shouldn't play with it unless you know what you're doing. And even then it burns you sometimes.’

Roger was indignant at being told this by the man. He had received something similar from his mother, except that she had used longer words. He thought that a man like this shouldn't give him the same speech as his mother. A man like this should be a wild pirate with a big sword, yelling various curses and swinging along the rigging of a huge ship. Roger began to think that the man might be a weirdo (a word he had picked up recently from his father and used often ever since). ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked the man, trying to sound as tough as he could, and having minimal success.

The man looked vague. ‘I came here to look at the stars... and to try and forget about what I did.’

Both Debbie and Roger wanted to know what it was he had done - but Roger was the first to open his mouth.

The man looked disappointed when asked the question. ‘I killed a man... someone I'd known for a long time.’

‘Was he your friend?’ asked Debbie, looking up at him. Her cat had died when she was five and she had thought she would cry forever... having a friend die was an unimaginable horror.

A small smile escaped the man's lips. ‘We were deadly enemies... he dedicated a lot of his life to destroying me. But in the end I suppose I won out.’

Roger was amazed by this. ‘You mean you fought him? You're a hero?’

Debbie knew that Roger was thinking about the men in his comic books, the ones with huge muscles and big guns. Roger idolised them, and wrote his own comic strips, drawing them in class when Mrs Wilkinson wasn't looking. He showed them around, and while Debbie thought that the art was good (Roger was the best at drawing in the class), she didn't like them. Maybe it was because they always ended with a huge explosion and the hero coming out with a big gun and shooting the bad guy. Debbie didn't know. From the look on the man's face, Debbie guessed that he knew what sort of hero Roger thought he was too.

‘Yes,’ he told them, ‘whether I like it or not Trouble seems to like me. And I suppose I can't leave things alone.’

Roger was confused. Surely a hero should like being one? Roger knew that if he was a hero he would enjoy himself all the time. Yet this man said he was a hero ‘whether I like it or not.’ Roger didn't get it.

‘I died too,’ said the man suddenly. ‘I've died seven times now... but I'm still here.’

Roger all but fell over in astonishment. All thoughts of weirdo gone, he stared up at the man. ‘You've got super-powers?’ he asked, awed.

Again, a smile escaped the man. ‘I suppose you could put it that way,’ he told Roger. ‘I've got the power to change twelve times. After that its the end... but my enemy didn't believe in rules. He tried to steal my lives... but I managed to stop him.’

‘How did you kill him?’ asked Roger eagerly. The man jerked.

‘I didn't want to kill, him! I tried to save him! But he would never let me do that... he could never let me help him. He let go of the staff and died.’

Roger and Debbie both sat still, stunned by the man's outburst. Eventually Debbie reached out and put he small arm around the man's waist and hugged him. She didn't know why she did it - but she immediately knew it was right. The man smiled faintly.

Roger stood up. His bottom lip quivered as he confronted Debbie and the man. ‘You're not a hero!’ he accused the man, his voice shaking. ‘You're just an adult pretending! You don't have a gun and you don't kill baddies and you're sad! You're just a w-w-wimp!’

Debbie and the man watched silently as Roger ran down the hill, kicking up a clout of earth and grass when he skidded and fell over, before picking himself up and disappearing from sight.

Debbie looked up at the man. It occurred to her that they hadn't even exchanged names, something her mother had told her she should always do - it was polite. When she, as carefully as she could, asked the man what his name was, she got a bigger smile than she had seen from him yet.

‘Formality. Get it out of the way quickly, it makes for very boring conversation.’ He extended a hand. ‘I'm the Doctor... and you are?’

‘Debbie.’ She took his hand and shook it solemnly, before giggling. It occurred to her that the Doctor didn't look like the sort of person who usually shook hands. It looked like he was thinking the same thing.

Tentatively, she tried to broach another question, hoping that it wouldn't provoke an outburst like Roger's before. ‘Why did you like your enemy so much... If he was bad?’

She waited. The man seemed to be pondering her question. When he answered, he still had a look on his face that suggested that he was still working out what to say next. ‘I suppose that after knowing him for such a long time he had become like a staple... he was always there. And I hate death - even if someone deserves it. He and I were close once you know... until we began to fight. Then one thing led to another I suppose, and I was the victor. Good beats evil, white beats black. And I still hate myself for it.’

Debbie understood all of what the Doctor was saying, and realised why he was so upset. Trying to resolve the problem in her head, she asked another question. ‘You said that you tried to save him?’

‘In the end, yes. Too late. I keep on thinking what I could have done earlier -’

‘You couldn't have.’

The Doctor stared at her. ‘What?’

Debbie didn't even feel in control of her mouth as the words tumbled out. ‘Anything you tried wouldn't have worked. I know. He killed himself... in the end.’

The Doctor looked at her. ‘How do you know that?’

Debbie shrugged. ‘I just do. You know it too.’

And the Doctor smiled.

‘Maybe I do,’ he murmured to himself. ‘Maybe I always did - ‘

He was interrupted by the sound of voices from further down the hill. Debbie looked and could see nothing, but the Doctor evidently could. ‘It's your parents,’ he said. ‘No doubt your friend has raised the alarm.’

He stood up, and began to walk away. Before he was but a few steps away however, he turned back.

‘About the fire...’ he said. Debbie looked up at him. He was choosing his words carefully, ‘If you feel you must play with it, then do. But make sure you understand it. It's a living thing - always try to keep the flame alive.’

‘But if it goes out then I can always light it again,’ Debbie told him. The voices of her parents and their friends were getting louder.

‘Then always keep the fire burning.’

The Doctor waved, and then turned and walked away, his coat flying behind him. Debbie waved to his back. She knew he saw her do it.

Then she turned and almost simultaneously her mother grabbed her. The adults had reached the top of the hill, a small group of children behind them. Debbie saw Roger over her mother's shoulder - he had finished crying and had obviously led the children to the top of the hill.

Her father was looking at the ground around them. Eventually he looked up. ‘There's no footprints,’ he told the rest of the adults. ‘The ground's soft - if anyone else had been up here they would have left marks.’

‘But Roger said -’ protested Roger's mother immediately. Debbie's father waved her words away. ‘I guess he must have made it up. You know how kids are.’

People started leaving as soon as they got down from the hill. Debbie and her parents were the last to leave. As her father thanked their hosts, Debbie's mother carried her sleepy daughter down to the car.

When she reached it, Debbie opened her eyes. Staring up at her mother, she told her: ‘There was a man up at the top of that hill tonight, mummy.’

After listening to Roger's description of the wild man and his conversation as they walked down the hill, the parents had decided that it had just been something he had created in his head. So Debbie's mother merely smiled at her daughter.

‘Roger had the wrong idea...’ continued Debbie. ‘He thought just because he didn't carry a gun and didn't like death, he was a wimp... but he's a hero.’

Her mother shushed her and bundled her into the car. When Debbie's father arrived he drove them home, and her mother sat in the front seat, remembering when she was a child and believed everything she saw on TV as well.

This item appeared in TSV 51 (June 1997).

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