This is a piece of short Doctor Who fiction I submitted to Big Finish on two occasions for their Short Trips anthology range (collections of short stories in both audio and traditional format). Whilst it was not amongst the successful submissions, I think it is at least worth a little wider exposure, so am reproducing it here. The character of Wendi has gone on to a supporting role in my current work-in-progress novel.
Doctor Who is © BBC
You probably think I'm exaggerating on both counts. True, my band's headlining the Camden Palace at the end of a successful major UK tour, but the most important night of my life? Surely I have higher ambitions than that? Well maybe you're right, perhaps I do. The most important night of my life so far, happy now?
And terrified? Stage fright is one thing, but nerves are a healthy reaction. If I find performing so terrifying how come I've stuck it out for so long?
That’s not it. It's not the gig itself that terrifies me. It's what I might see when I get out there. Suppose I look up at the front of the balcony and he is there, just as I fear he will be, him and...
I first met him five years ago, when we were still a two-piece working our way around the North London pub circuit. It was one night at the Albert Arms; we'd just gone down a storm which had taken us totally by surprise. Leaving Peter to start packing up the gear, I fought my way from the optimistically named backstage area (next to the mixing desk, fenced off with beer crates) to the bar, unable to control my grin. Buying a couple of pints, I turned round and bumped straight into him, a third of a pint of lager slopping straight over the sleeve of his coat.
"Oh god, I'm sorry," I turned and placed the drinks back on the bar, "I'll get you a bar towel, hang on..."
I glanced up and to my relief he was smiling.
"Don't worry, my fault. Serves me right for being so eager to talk to you! It's Sally isn't it? Good to meet you." He extended a hand.
I shook it, taking his appearance on board. He looked like a bit of a Goth to be honest. Not one of the rubber, piercing and amphetamine brigade, more one of those Byronic types who take silver hip flasks full of absinthe to nightclubs. His longish dark hair gave the impression that he’d recently been pulled through several hedges backwards. Still, the green velvet coat looked quite good on him, even if it was far too hot in the pub for that sort of thing. He didn't seem to be breaking a sweat.
"That's right!" I reached behind me and retrieved my pint, "Did you enjoy the gig?"
"Oh definitely, very much.” He grinned, and we started talking about music for a while. He music taste was bizarre; he hadn’t heard of half the bands I thought he would have done, but sometimes really seemed to know what he was talking about. I approved.
"You know, I really liked that one you did about half way through, you know, where the music suddenly stopped and it was just you singing those words from Lewis Carroll for half a minute..."
"Dog Alice," I interrupted. He nodded.
"Haunting. I always liked that chapter. I'm really glad I dropped in now, I was just passing, you see. I'm the Doctor, by the way."
It figured. Those Goths and their pseudonyms. I expected he spelled it with a K. Mind you, I thought, I could talk... Something nagged at the back of my mind then, but before I could follow the thought, he was asking when our next gig was.
"Not long – next Friday. At the Durham Tavern, it's only a mile from here. I’ll see if I’ve got a flyer." I started groping around inside my leather jacket.”
"Don’t worry, I’ll remember. I'll be there.” He glanced about then seemed to come to a decision, “Sorry, I've got to dash off but I'll see you in a minute. I mean next Friday!"
And with that he was gone, making his way through the sweaty throng with remarkable speed – not so much pushing his way out but just selecting random gaps between people as they opened and slipping effortlessly through. A bit of a space cadet, I decided, but cute.
It was only as I made my way backstage with the drinks that the nagging thought caught up with me. He'd called me by my real name, Sally.
It wasn't that good a gig. Peter and I just didn't have the spark we'd had at the Albert Arms, but that's just the way things go sometimes. After the show I insisted on getting the drinks, despite Peter’s protestations. I wanted to chat to the Doctor again; for one thing I was keen to find out how he'd known what my real name was – all our publicity referred to me by my stage name, "Wendi".
But somehow I never got around to asking. He was standing by the bar again and smiled as I approached. He was dressed exactly the same – that’s Goths for you – and I could have sworn the sleeve of his coat was still damp. We had a lovely chat but before I knew it he made his excuses and left, promising to see me soon.
He was as good as his word. Over the next couple of years he'd show up at the gigs – not all of them, but enough for it not to feel quite the same when he wasn’t there. Our fan. He'd chat to me and to Peter - and then to Toby when he joined – but mostly to me. The funny thing was I never got the impression he was coming on to me. He was just infectiously enthusiastic about what we were doing, and it's fair to say that whenever I did have doubts about the band he was a master at dispelling them.
I never did find out anything about him. He kept the details of his own life to himself, I had absolutely no idea where he went between the gigs even when he turned up at King Tut's in Glasgow!
And that's probably how it would have continued had it not been for that incident at the Cowbox.
It must have been about two years after the gig at the Albert Arms. I think it's closed down now, but the Cowbox was a medium sized club; a considerable step up from the pub circuit but nothing to get too excited about. Nevertheless, we'd put on a good show and I’d heard were some influential journos in the audience. In particular one Dik Write – remember him? - from the Record Mirror, you know, the guy who had a reputation for discovering the Next Big Thing. And he wanted to interview me after the show.
Once we came off stage I realised I was drunker than I should have been and was so nervous that I even forgot to go and have a look for the Doctor in the bar. And then Mr Write – ha! - came backstage for his feature...
Look, I really don't want to go into it again now. He was a sleazebag who seemed to think his make-or-break rep gave him carte blanche to make a pass at me. I'm not talking harmless flirting; once we were alone in the dressing room he dropped all pretense; it was obvious the kind of coverage he had in mind.
I was drunk and I've always had a bit of a temper on me. He ended up with a fist in the face and a knee to the groin.
It was only then that I realised what I'd done. A major influence in the music press at the time, he made it quite clear that as far as he was concerned my music career was over. He stormed out and I got stuck into a bottle of vodka.
I lost track of time after that, my memory of the rest of the evening started to degrade into odd fragments of reality. I recall sitting out in the main part of the venue some time later, more vodka in front of me, staring in incomprehension at the bodies gyrating on the dance floor. A figure approached and slid into the seat next to me.
"Sally? What's the matter?"
It was the Doctor. Slurring, and through what I was shocked to discover were tears, I explained what had happened. His face darkened.
"Why is crass ignorance and stupidity always so keen to drag creativity and beauty down to its own level?" He almost seemed more upset about it than I did.
"Don't you see?" I said, "That's it. We'll never make it now, he's got the music press in his pocket."
"You can't give up!" The Doctor took my hands in his and stared into my face, "I’m sure this feels like a setback now, but it’s nothing someone of your talent can't overcome! Your art is better. Far better. He doesn't deserve to win!"
"What's the point? He will. He has. 'Don't give up the day job', he said. It's just as well I haven't, isn't it?" I uttered a bitter laugh.
"Listen, Sally. You are important. Your career is important. Don't throw it all away on his account. If you only knew how far you'll go, what you're capable of when you’re in the right place at the right time..."
I shook my head in despair. This time the Doctor's talent of making things seem OK didn't seem to be working. He stared into space for a minute and then turned back to me.
"I'd like to show you something," he said.
I don't really remember leaving the club; my next clear memory is of staggering along the wintry streets of North London though the orange sodium light gloom, one arm linked through the Doctor's, the feel of the velvet of his coat clear and comforting under my hand as he strode purposefully... where? I don't know, I can't remember.
At one point we turned into an alleyway at the end of which stood a tall shed with two small, brightly lit square windows beaming welcome, with – oddly – a light on the roof as well.
I can't recall what happened next. Despite the sobering effect of the night air, the vodka in my bloodstream was playing havoc with my memory. I honestly think some of what was happening just wasn't being recorded in my brain.
I was sitting in an easy chair. I wasn't cold any more. Half opening my eyes, I could see that I seemed to be in some sort of cathedral. Somewhere big and dark, anyway. But for some reason I felt safe. Some way off I could blurrily make out the Doctor bending over something, busy, active, but I couldn't work out what he was doing. A column of light seemed to extend upwards beyond him.
I closed my eyes again and my head span, the floor seeming to rock and sway in sympathy – but not in the sickening way it usually did when I'd had too much, more in the comforting manner of a sailing ship crossing a deep, calm ocean...
More pavements, more night, more street lamps. It wasn't cold any more, if anything it could almost have been described as balmy. It didn't feel nearly as late as it should have by then. I felt as if I was abroad, jet-lagged. Busy streets. I became aware that we'd stopped walking and had joined a queue outside a brightly lit, baroque building. Squinting upwards I could just make out the neon sign high up on the front.
The Camden Palace.
We made our way inside, through a warm red atrium, a bloodstream crowded with bodies, down corridors and up spiral staircases until we reached the front of a balcony and leaned on the railing looking down into the packed interior. A crowd surged and boiled, a solid mass of humanity down on the dance floor in front of the stage, all pressing eagerly forward. Something was about to happen.
The lights dimmed and the sound of melodic thunder filled the air. Figures strode out onto the stage below as the crowd shrieked their approval.
One, two , three people. And hang on... surely that was Peter? Far more confident and sophisticated than I'd ever seen him, but undeniably Peter. And there was Toby, pretty much the same, and some other bloke I didn't know. And then as the thunder picked up pace and became repetitive, percussive...
A woman ran out to stand at the centre of the stage. And she was me. And she started singing.
My addled brain had no idea how long we stood there watching the gig. I remember tears running down my face at the beauty of it all – this was our music, this was how I'd always wanted it to be and how it finally was. My vision of our art, ultimately made real. We could do it, we had done it...
Even though none of this made sense. At one point I glanced up at the Doctor but he was just staring at the stage smiling, rapt.
"Thank you! Good night!" The crowd bawled with approval, craving more, but that was it and this perfect version of myself and her friends slipped off stage.
The last thing I recall is the woman down there briefly turning as she stepped into the wings, waving at everyone.
I remember nothing else from that night.
I awoke the next morning in my own bed, a severe vodka hangover poisoning my peace of mind. I had absolutely no idea how I'd got there or what I'd done beforehand. I'd been left with just one thing though thanks to that inspiring... dream I'd had. Determination.
It's been two and a half years now and I never did see the Doctor again. I always kept an eye out for him at the gigs but he never showed up.
What if he does tonight though? What will that mean? Here we are, actually are playing at the Camden Palace and even from the dressing room I can hear that there's a huge crowd in.
And am I amongst them? The thought petrifies me, even though I can't say why. Another body out there with my mind in it. It's irrationally wrong. I'm afraid.
Oh god. That's it, they're ready for us to go on. Here we go.
Don't look up, don't look up.