'How much longer now before we arrive, Grandfather?’ asked Gillian, the hope and excitement she felt fully expressed in the tone of her young voice.
‘Some time yet, I believe, child,’ responded Dr Who, who was bent over the control panel of his beloved time and space machine, the Tardis, intently studying the readings on the metaphoric gauge through his spectacles.
‘Will we return to exactly the same place that we first started out from?’ enquired John. ‘That yard with all the junk?’
Dr Who sniffed. ‘Quality second-hand merchandise, if you please.’
‘But will we?’
‘Yes, yes,’ the old Doctor replied somewhat testily. He tapped on the gauge with a long forefinger. ‘Theoretically speaking,’ he added.
‘Theoretically?’ pursued John.
Dr Who drew himself up and inserted his thumbs beneath the lapels of his black frock coat in the way he always did prior to delivering a lecture. ‘I have extracted from the Tardis log the co-ordinates for each of our destinations since you so very reprehensibly meddled with the controls in the first place.’
John winced, but said defensively ‘So…?’
‘I have arranged them all in order, reversed the possible route we took for the overall journey, edited the result by applying a balance of probabilities theory I devised and produced a set of shortcut co-ordinates. In theory, therefore, you are both on your way home.’ The Doctor beamed from John to Gillian as if expecting an outbreak of grateful applause.
‘Well done, Grandfather,’ offered Gillian, unwilling to have her dream of returning home shattered and wanting to keep the peace as well.
John, though thinking twice before provocation now, nonetheless ventured a further insertion on the subject with ‘It’s a bit hit and miss, then?’
Dr Who darted a repressive look at him, opened his mouth to speak, suddenly thought better of it, clamped his mouth shut in the manner of a miser closing a purse and proceeded to make a totally unnecessary adjustment to the controls instead.
Surely, thought John, it wasn’t too unreasonable to throw a little bit of doubt on the proceedings in the circumstances. Ever since the old man had declared his purpose, after their memorable encounter with the Pied Piper of Hamelin, of trying for home and attempted to steer the Tardis back through time and space to November 1964 on Earth, it had been either near misses, such as their brief visit to the Moon, where they had piped two confused American astronauts at the post, and after that Eastern Europe, where events had inexplicably unfolded back to front and made it their most peculiar experience yet, or a case of being absolutely way out when they had been transported to the scorched home planet of their very first adversaries, the Kleptons.
Gillian essayed another attempt to smooth things over. ‘Grandfather, if we’re not going to land yet, will you tell us another story?’
‘Story?’ Dr Who looked at her vaguely, as if he had never heard the word before.
John thought it politic to lend his sister a hand at this stage. ‘You told us one a while ago, remember? About what happened at that old orphanage on Christmas Eve.’
‘That was a spooky one,’ added Gillian, her idea suddenly not seeming to be such a good one after all as she belatedly recalled the nightmare in which a skeletal hand had prised up a floorboard from below and beckoned to her with a bony forefinger…
Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, since it brought the accuracy of the Doctor’s predictions into question again, the round glass column in the centre of the six-sided control panel began to rise and fall more sedately and the high-pitched grinding noise that indicated materialisation resounded around the control room.
Their latest journey had come to an end.
‘There,’ said Dr Who. ‘I told you it wouldn’t be long before we came to rest, didn’t I, hmm?’
John was being determinedly tactful now. ‘Good show, Grandfather,’ he commented, unconsciously drawing on the expressions of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. ‘Let’s have a look at the scanner-screen,’ he suggested.
When a dim picture depicting abundant greenery appeared it was obvious that wherever this was, it certainly wasn’t a back street yard. John smiled inwardly in secret relief, for he was far from anxious to get home and end his travels anyway.
They stepped outside the blue police box. It was Gillian who was a little truculent now as she brushed leaves away from her face. ‘I suppose we’re slap in the middle of a jungle,’ she complained.
John put an arm around her in lieu of spoken consolation. ‘Let’s take a look around. I’d quite like to explore a good jungle,’ he said, rather too brightly.
Gillian rolled her eyes. ‘You would,’ she muttered, though in truth she was already rising above this latest unintended destination, the result of not inconsiderable practice.
Dr Who removed his spectacles with one hand and fingered a leaf with the other. ‘Yes, just as I thought. Definitely the Earth.’ He regarded the children benevolently, apparently well satisfied.
‘But Grandfather…’ Gillian began.
The Doctor wagged an admonishing forefinger at her. ‘Perfection is denied to us all, my child. Think of the vastness of space, the endless corridors of time. What is a modicum of slippage in projected co-ordinates compared to that, hmm?’
‘Nothing at all, Grandfather, is it?’ John was moving away from the Tardis as he spoke. ‘Do you think we are in a jungle?’ he went on.
‘I think I’ll reserve judgement as to that until we have completed, at the very least, a basic exploration of the immediate vicinity,’ answered Dr Who, as he and his granddaughter followed John through the trees and bushes.
They soon reached the periphery of what was not, in fact, a jungle but a fair-sized grove. The Doctor drew aside a curtain of obscuring foliage in order to provide them with a view of what lay beyond.
‘It’s quite a view,’ John remarked after some moments, still intent upon making the best of it.
His sister gazed doubtfully at the prospect before them.
His sister gazed doubtfully at the prospect before them.
The uneven ground, sloping gradually downwards from the grove, consisted of dust and scattered stones before levelling out at what might be a track of sorts, its surface looking different, more like hard-packed sand. Intermittent clumps of vegetation, visible on the far side of it, completely lacked the exuberance of nature’s offerings in the grove. In the background were hills and valleys, of a dusky yellow flecked with patches of white, with only occasional touches of green. Perhaps, Gillian thought, fanciful all at once, it was a piece of scenery by an artist who couldn’t be bothered to mix any more green paint and had made what he had last. She smiled, pleased and rather cheered by the thought. Yes, he had used all his green on the thick growth they had just pushed their way through…
When they stood on the stony land above the sandy trail Dr Who’s eyes fell upon three dark, slender trees, high on a hill quite some distance away to his left and silhouetted against the sky. His gaze continued for some reason to dwell on them. What did the way they were positioned remind him of?
John’s voice broke into his thoughts. ‘Grandfather…’
The Doctor turned. ‘What is it, my boy?’
John leaned forward a little and squinted. ‘I’m sure I saw things moving…yes, you can just make them out. Riders, I think.’ He pointed, away to their extreme right.
‘Oh yes,’ Gillian concurred. ‘Well spotted, John.’
Dr Who’s long-distance eyesight, despite his age, was as good as theirs. ‘Dear me, yes.’
‘Hard to tell how many there are. Wait till they get a bit closer,’ advised John.
‘They’re not travelling very fast,’ Gillian observed.
John laughed. ‘That rules out the cavalry, then.’
The Doctor frowned at this levity. ‘It’ll be quite a time before they reach us, certainly, so I suggest we walk in their direction.’
‘But Grandfather, do we want to meet them?’ queried Gillian. ‘They might not be friendly.’
‘How else are we to ascertain exactly where we are and in what period of time, child?’
Gillian sighed inwardly. If it meant safety she would have been happy never knowing.
The trio set off.
‘We’ve lost sight of them now,’ complained John, after a fairly lengthy trek.
Gillian nodded wearily. ‘It’s because we’ve come down into this valley.’
‘We’ll soon pick them out again when we return to higher ground,’ Dr Who stated confidently. ‘Come, let us press on.’
Eventually, after an ankle-wrenching climb and another, shorter traipse John stood on a hill topped with sparse sand and a few miserable weeds struggling to survive. He gave a triumphant cry.
‘I can see them!’
The Doctor and his granddaughter were still clambering up the hill. ‘How far away are they now?’ called Gillian.
‘Not too far. There are four of them, on camels.’
John gazed at the quartet riding sedately along, outlined against the sky. Gillian arrived to stand beside him. ‘One less and they might have been the three wise men.’ She smiled reminiscently. ‘Last year’s nativity play at school was quite good, wasn’t it?’
‘With the wise men being directed to Bethlehem by a tinfoil star suspended from a piece of gym equipment?’
Gillian frowned. ‘You always poke fun. Miss Leeson worked really hard to get it all done on time.’
‘Checking everything with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?’
Dr Who interposed. ‘As a matter of fact, my dear boy, only Matthew mentions the wise men, or Magi.’
‘I didn’t know that, Grandfather.’ John’s voice held a genuine flicker of interest now.
‘I wore a blue shawl and played a woman who took the last bed at the inn,’ Gillian continued, undeterred by the interruption. ‘You were the innkeeper,’ she added, eyeing her brother censoriously.
John smirked. ‘Yes. That was a laugh.’
‘You stood by the doorway and whispered to everyone going in that it was fish and chips or nothing, take it or leave it, and if they wanted mushy peas it was sixpence extra. All that giggling started then. Joanna Coombes told Miss McGovern all about it the next day.’
‘That sickening, goody-goody and her snitching!’ John exclaimed disgustedly.
‘I couldn’t stand her, myself,’ Gillian admitted.
The Doctor tutted. ‘All this chatter. Come along. Let us finish this – er – enjoyable little stroll. It will be interesting to meet our four travellers over there face to face and establish our whereabouts, will it not, hmm?’