YOU BETTER WATCH OUT…
“Doctor,” said Charley, for what seemed like the twenty-fifth time.
So far she had failed to gain the attention of her Time Lord companion, so caught up was he with the dusty old book he’d found tucked high up on an almost unreachable library shelf. In fact, Charley had a pretty good impression that he’d forgotten her existence altogether. Even the arrival of a fresh pot of tea and a plate of new scones waved under his nose couldn’t elicit any reaction.
Charley was getting bored. The light she’d spotted on the console had been flashing on and off for half an hour now, and she wasn’t entirely sure that the big wooden blocks that were used to direct their destination were meant to move on their own.
“Doctor,” she said again, by now ready to dump the by now stone cold contents of his teacup over his head if he still didn’t answer her. Or rather she would have been, had the TARDIS not chosen that moment to give an almighty lurch which sent the tea tray flying, tipped the Doctor out of his chair and threw Charley halfway across the room to land — thankfully — in a pile of cushions near the conservatory.
It was enough to galvanise the Doctor into action. Suddenly finding himself on the floor, he was looking around him for the source of the disturbance even as he climbed to his feet. His sharp blue eyes eventually found Charley, disentangling herself from a large pillow that looked as though it should have belonged in an eastern sultan’s harem.
“What did you do to my TARDIS?” he demanded, hurrying over to the console and stroking it as though it were a frightened animal.
Charley finally clambered out of the cushions and crossed to his side, smoothing down her sweater. “Nothing!” she replied indignantly.
“You must have done! Our coordinates have altered, and I certainly haven’t touched them!”
“Neither have I,” she said through gritted teeth, itching to give him a slap. “I haven’t touched your precious TARDIS. What I have been trying to do, for the last half an hour, is to tell you that a light has been flashing on and off!”
Suddenly the Doctor was all curiosity, accusations forgotten. “A light? Why didn’t you say so? Where was it?”
“It was there, and I have been trying to - ”
He waved that away, peering at the little red light, which was now glowing merrily at them. “Oh, that’s not important now. This is, however. When this light flashes, it’s telling us that there’s a hazard in the vortex.”
“A hazard? Do you mean a kind of barrier?” Despite her annoyance, Charley found herself becoming interested.
“More like something that shouldn’t be there.” The Doctor was moving round the console now with purposeful strides, checking the instruments. From the display on the hanging screen, Charley could see that their location had changed — it looked as though the Dickensian Christmas the Doctor had promised her would have to wait a while. “We certainly collided with something,” he said now, frowning. “And the only things that should be in the vortex besides us are either stray vortisaurs - ”
“ — or another TARDIS?”
“Precisely.” He flipped the switch that turned on the holographic scanner — above them the dark ceiling of the console room melted away to reveal the incredible swirling maelstrom of the time vortex. Charley screwed up her eyes — it was beautiful, but too much to look at directly without getting an appalling headache.
“Is there something out there?” she asked.
The Doctor’s curly head was bent over the controls again. He answered without looking up. “Yes. Another craft, just drifting.”
“Can we do anything to help them?”
His long fingers beat a discordant tattoo on the wooden ledge of the console while he chewed on his lip, deep in thought. “I can try materialising around it. Not strictly advisable, but then these are rather unusual circumstances. If we leave it there it’ll eventually be torn apart by the time winds, and the vortisaurs - ”
“Will pick over what’s left.” Charley shuddered. Ramsay had been a baby, and rather adorable, but even he had had his violent moments. She didn’t want to think what his full-grown relatives would be like. “Do what you have to do,” she told the Doctor.
“Right.” He glanced at her. “You’d better hang onto something — this could be bumpy.”
Charley grabbed one of the girders as she watched him twisting dials and flicking switches. Whatever he was doing was obviously extremely delicate, judging by the minute adjustments he made to the coordinates. At last he straightened, one hand on the dematerialisation lever.
He looked at her expectantly. “Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
“OK. Here we go!” He rammed the lever home, and immediately the familiar elephantine bellow of the TARDIS’s ancient engines reverberated through the room. Though they always sounded as though the ship were heaving itself with great difficulty into the vortex, this time the noise was even more strained, stretching out and wobbling alarmingly, slowing down like a gramophone record on the wrong speed before suddenly returning to normal.
The ship shuddered. Charley held on tight as accumulated bric-a-brac was thrown around her. Books flew from the shelves; ornaments shattered on the floor; there was an almighty crash as one of the bronze statues that flanked the doors toppled over. It felt as though a curious giant had taken hold of the TARDIS and was shaking it to try and guess what was inside. She closed her eyes, wondering how on earth the Doctor could remain standing at the console under such an onslaught.
The noise reached a crescendo, the wheezing and groaning warping into something else altogether for a few seconds. Then, with a very loud thud, everything stopped.
For several moments Charley didn’t dare to move, still hugging the girder. She knew that she would be covered in bruises the next morning, but then that wasn’t so different from any other day in the TARDIS. Oh, for the ice-skating and mulled wine that the Doctor had been enthusing about only a few hours before!
“It’s all right, Charley, you can look now.”
Blearily she recognised the Doctor’s voice. He sounded remarkably cheerful considering how close they seemed to have come to being pulled inside out. It took a moment for her to remember how to move, but eventually she managed to unwind her battered limbs from around the girder. She felt in dire need of a bath, and a cup of tea.
When she turned to face the Doctor, she realised that the shaking, or the noise, or both must have affected her brain. Something must have done, as there was absolutely no other way that a sleigh, just like the ones she had seen in Switzerland during her time at finishing school, could be standing in the middle of the console room. Even more remote was the likelihood of said sleigh being piled high with brightly-wrapped parcels and drawn by a team of…goodness, surely those couldn’t be reindeer, could they?
“Doctor,” she said when she found her voice, “Doctor, I - ”
He looked up from the reindeer he was patting on the nose. On the red nose, Charley realised in astonishment. “Is something wrong, Charley?”
She nodded. “Doctor, I think I’m seeing things!”
A concerned expression settled on his handsome face. “Oh, dear, that doesn’t sound good. What can you see?”
“A sleigh, and reindeer, and…” Don’t say Father Christmas, don’t say Father Christmas….Charley saw the fat, bearded man in red sitting in the sleigh, holly edging the brim of his cap, and looked quickly in the opposite direction.
“Oh, is that all? It’s all right, Charley, it’s not a hallucination,” said the Doctor, grinning. He rescued the sugar bowl from where it had rolled under the console and offered a handful of sugar lumps to the reindeer. The animal swept them from his palm with an appreciative grunt.
Charley’s jaw dropped. “Then you mean - ”
“I do indeed. It’s all real.”
“But it can’t possibly be! All this — it just doesn’t exist!”
“Who says?” the Doctor asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, everyone! My parents — look, Doctor, Father Christmas isn’t real. Everyone knows that!” Charley cried desperately.
“And no doubt the same people would tell you that time travel and aliens can't possibly be real, too. Does that mean I’m a figment of your imagination?” He sounded amused. Charley glared at him — he had an answer for everything.
But there was no doubt that the sleigh did appear to be real. As ever, Charley’s latent curiosity took charge, and she hesitantly approached the sleigh. The fat man at the reins looked extremely flustered, mopping his forehead with a big spotted handkerchief. He looked just like every image of Father Christmas Charley had ever seen rolled into one.
“Oh, thank you,” he said in a deep, booming voice. “I thought we’d be stuck there forever! The team have completely lost their bearings.”
“Do you fly through the time vortex?” Charley couldn’t help asking.
“Of course, my dear! How else do you think we get all the presents delivered in time?”
“I always thought that it was magic. Does that mean that you’re a Time Lord, then?”
The man burst into laughter, a deep bass rumble in his chest. “Oh, bless you, young lady, no. I hardly think that I would last long among such a dry bunch!”
Charley was about to point out that the Doctor was one of that ‘dry bunch’, when the man himself chipped in. “Gallifrey grants him a special dispensation allowing him to use the vortex on Christmas Eve,” he said, scratching the reindeer behind the ears. It shook its head, the bells on its harness jangling cheerfully.
“That’s very good of them,” Charley said, surprised. She’d always got the impression from the Doctor’s comments that his people preferred not to interfere in the running of the universe.
He flicked an eyebrow. “They have their philanthropic moments. Very few and far between, but they have them.” Giving the reindeer a final pat he turned to the man in red. “So, what happened, Nick? Did you have a collision with something?”
“Only yourselves. The guidance mechanism on the sleigh seems to be on the blink. We were on our way back to England from Russia, but we couldn’t find the right exit,” Nick replied, mopping his forehead once more. He reached into the pocket of his tightly-stretched waistcoat and withdrew a large watch. “We’re running very late. I thought that we were done for when those huge dinosaurs started to circle around.”
“Yes. They’re not very polite, vortisaurs. They should at least wait a while before they start scavenging. Maybe I could take a look at that guidance mechanism of yours — sounds as though the temporal regulator might be out.” The sonic screwdriver appeared in the Doctor’s hand. He twirled it between his fingers like a gunslinger.
Nick looked relieved. “Oh, thank you, my boy. That would be marvellous. But what should I do in the meantime? I can’t disappoint all the children.”
“Don’t worry. We’re outside of time. Put your feet up, take a break. Charley?”
One of the reindeer was sniffing at Charley’s sleeve. She realised belatedly that the Doctor was talking to her. “Yes?”
He nodded towards Nick, who had climbed down from the sleigh and had ensconced himself in the red and gold armchair. “Put the kettle on.”
“That should do it.”
Two hours and three pots of tea later, the Doctor shut the sleek red panel on the front of the sleigh and stretched. The sonic screwdriver vanished into his pocket again. “This thing really needs a thorough service. I’ve done some temporary rewiring, Nick, so you’re good to go.”
There was no reply.
Charley and the Doctor looked at each other. In the resulting silence, a loud rumbling snore rose up from the depths of the armchair. Charley rounded the chair to find their rotund guest fast asleep, scone crumbs in his beard. She and the Doctor looked at each other again across the slumbering Nick.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
Tentatively, the Doctor shook his red-clad friend by the shoulder. “Nick? Nick, wake up.”
No response barring another snore. The Doctor gently withdrew the pocket watch from Nick’s waistcoat and looked carefully at it. Charley could see the two large hands steadily ticking towards a smiling sun where twelve o’clock should be. Not long until dawn.
A mischievous smile had crept onto the Doctor’s face. “Looks like there’s only one thing for it,” he whispered.
Charley blinked, catching hold of his train of thought. “Do you mean…?”
The smile widened. “I do. We’ll have to deliver these presents ourselves.”
“Do you know how to drive this thing?”
The Doctor shrugged on his frock coat and brushed away an invisible speck of dust. “It can’t be that difficult, can it? These fellas know where they’re going.” He gave the red-nosed reindeer an appreciative pat before climbing up beside Charley.
“I certainly hope they do,” she told him, settling the rug she’d found on the seat over her legs. At the Doctor’s suggestion, she’d put on a warm coat and gloves. She looked at his red velvet and silk cravat. “Won’t you be cold?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t think so.” He gathered the reins. “Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be. Just out of interest, how are we going to get out of here?”
He smiled enigmatically. “Magic.”
Charley just looked at him. “Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.”
“Really?” The bells on the reins jingled. The Doctor waved a dramatic hand towards the doors and called out, “Open Sesame!”
At his command, the doors swung slowly open, revealing the swirling energy of the vortex beyond. Charley felt a sudden surge of apprehension. “Doctor, will we be…safe out there?” she asked.
He glanced at her, and this time his smile was soft. “Just believe, Charley, just believe.”
“Well, I’ll try, but - ”
“Do you trust me?”
She replied without hesitation. “Of course.”
“Then that’s all we need.” The Doctor flicked the reins. “Let’s go, lads!”
“Doctor, I — oh! Oh, my goodness!” Charley found her doubts suddenly becoming an exclamation of surprise and delight as the sleigh lifted into the air. She grabbed the rail in front of her as the Doctor touched the reins again and the team of reindeer shot off towards the doors. There were a hair-raising few moments as they narrowly avoided the time rotor, but somehow they squeezed through the doorway — which didn’t look nearly big enough — and then they really were flying, through open space, the beautiful kaleidoscopic colours of the vortex all around them.
She must have gasped in wonder and astonishment, as the Doctor turned to her with a brilliant grin, eyes alight and curls bobbing around his head in the wind. “Enjoying yourself?”
“This — this is impossible!” Charley shouted as the vortex rushed by. “It’s utterly impossible!”
“I know! Fun, isn’t it?”
His enthusiasm was infectious. Charley found herself grinning too. “Yes! Yes, it certainly is!”
Ahead of them, the reindeer did indeed seem to know exactly where they were going. A split was opening in the tunnel, revealing what looked very much like a night sky, studded with twinkling stars.
“Next stop, Christmas Eve!” called the Doctor, and they plunged at speed through the gap.
As the rip closed smartly behind them, Charley’s shout echoed in the vortex:
‘T was the night before Christmas,
And all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring,
Not even a mouse…
Well, it was a flat, actually, and the Doctor and Charley were most definitely stirring, on their final trip of the night. She had been concerned that they might be required to enter houses via their chimneys, according to tradition, but the Doctor had winked and produced a large key from a pocket. This key apparently opened any door in England, which was useful but slightly alarming. When she commented on this, the Doctor assured her that the key only worked for the person delivering the Christmas presents. Charley had to admit that this was much more pleasant that having to squeeze down sooty chimneys carrying a sack.
“I’m certainly full of admiration for Fath — er, Nick,” she said quietly as they set the final lot of gifts under the gaudily-decorated tree. “If he manages all this and more in a single night he must have incredible stamina for a man of his age.”
The Doctor straightened the drunk-looking angel at the top of the tree and stood back to admire his handiwork. “He’s a lot older than he looks, too.”
Charley couldn’t help asking the obvious question. “So exactly who — or what — is he, if he isn’t a Time Lord?”
He didn’t reply, peering round the back of the tree to the wires that connected the fairy lights. “Now, that doesn’t look very safe,” he muttered. Charley was presented with his red velvet back for some moments as he bent over to fiddle with the socket. After a short pause, the tree burst into dazzling light. He leaned back, pleased with his adjustments. Only then did he register that Charley had asked him a question. “Oh. Well, now that would be telling, wouldn’t it?”
“You mean you don’t know,” she accused.
“Charley, Charley, Charley…surely you don’t want me to destroy the magic of Christmas?”
She thought about it. “Well, no, I suppose not.”
“Good.” He checked his watch. “Right, we’d better be off. Children get up notoriously early on Christmas morning, and we don’t - ” He trailed off, looking at something over her left shoulder. “Oh, dear.”
She frowned. “Doctor?”
He nodded at whatever had caught his attention. “I think we may be running a little late.”
Cautiously, Charley turned to see a small figure standing in the doorway. It was a girl, about five or six, her long blonde hair tousled by sleep. She was wearing pink pyjamas and dragging a teddy bear by the arm. “Oh.”
The little girl regarded them with large brown eyes. At length she removed her thumb from her mouth. “You ain’t Father Christmas,” she announced. Even at such a tender age, she had a very definite cockney accent.
The Doctor grasped his lapels. “How can you be sure?” he asked. “I’ve got a red coat.”
“Where’s your beard, then?”
“ I shaved it off. Too hot.”
She considered that for a moment as she came properly into the room. Charley watched in interest as she walked right up to the Doctor and jabbed a small finger into his stomach. “You ain’t fat enough,” she told him, looking up into his face without a trace of fear. Charley would have thought that a child who had just discovered two complete strangers In her home in the middle of the night would have at least been a little nervous, but not this one.
“Maybe I’ve been on a diet,” the Doctor said.
“Don’t believe you.” This last was said through a mouthful of thumb.
Charley decided that it was time to step in. She crouched down at the little girl’s side. “You know, you really shouldn’t be out of bed. If you don’t go back to sleep, the magic won’t work and all these lovely presents will disappear. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
The brown eyes lit up with interest as they took in the brightly-wrapped parcels under the tree. “Really?”
Above them on the roof could be heard the jingling of sleigh bells. The girl laughed at the sound and clapped her hands.
All of a sudden there was movement in the next room. A floorboard creaked.
The Doctor looked at Charley. “We should be gone. It’ll be light soon.”
The little girl looked momentarily stricken . “D’you really have to go?”
“I’m afraid so,” said Charley, “We only have one night.”
A door opened down the hallway. “Rose?” called a woman’s voice.
The Doctor put a finger to his lips with a smile, and reached behind Rose’s left ear to produce a bag full of glittering gold coins. Delighted, she pulled out one of the coins and tore away the precious covering to reveal that they were really made of chocolate.
“Come on, Charley,” the Doctor whispered.
Charley smiled at Rose, whose mouth was covered in chocolate. “Merry Christmas,” she mouthed, and followed the Doctor towards the door.
The reindeer were waiting patiently on the roof when they returned. The sound of their bells drifted on the still night air whenever one of them shook its head. Underfoot, newly fallen snow crunched as Charley walked — above her the sky was beginning to lighten.
“Time to go,” said the Doctor, taking up the reins.
She settled next to him in the sleigh. “Doctor,” she said thoughtfully.
“The little girl, Rose. Will it matter that she saw us, do you think?”
He considered. “Oh, I shouldn’t think so,” he said eventually. “She has her whole life ahead of her. Give it a year or two and she won’t even remember us.”
“Yes, you’re probably right.”
“Of course. I’m always right.”
“Oh, you most definitely are not!” Charley exclaimed, slapping him on the arm. “What about the time when - ”
The rest of her sentence was lost as the Doctor flicked the reins and the sleigh lifted into the sky.
Below them, Rose kneeled on the window sill, her nose pressed to the glass.
“Rose? Rose, where are you?”
Behind her she could hear her mother shuffling into the room in her fluffy slippers.
“Oh, there you are! What’re you doing out of bed, darlin’?”
Rose didn’t move from the window. “I saw Father Christmas,” she said.
Her mother sighed. “ Course you did, love. Come on, come back to bed. It’ll be time to get up soon.”
Reluctantly, Rose jumped down and slipped her hand into her mum’s. “He did come,” she insisted. “He had a girl with him. And I heard the reindeer!”
“Reindeer, Rose, yeah. I bet he’s been busy tonight. Now let’s get back to bed like a good girl or you won’t get any presents.”
“But he left the presents,” said Rose as her mother ushered her out of the room.
If Jackie Tyler had looked back through the open curtains as she closed the door, she would have seen a sleigh, drawn by deer, silhouetted against the moon.
The TARDIS was still hovering in the vortex, just as they had left her.
Charley had to shut her eyes as they flew towards the police box doors. When she opened them again they were back in the console room.
Nick was waiting for them as they touched down gently, wreathed in smiles. “Thank you, thank you,” he boomed. “What would I have done without you both?”
“Our pleasure, Nick,” said the Doctor, jumping to the floor. He shook his friend’s hand with his usual enthusiasm. “Wasn’t it, Charley?”
“Oh, absolutely,” she agreed, giving one of the reindeer a pat. It snuffled against her arm.
Nick checked his watch. “Well, I had better be off. Must start preparations for next year.”
“Already? After so much work?” Charley asked in surprise. “Won’t you at least take a holiday first?”
“Making Christmas happen is a great responsibility, Charley. I can’t afford to take time off.”
The Doctor was at the console. “She has a point, Nick. Relax for a few days. You’ve got another 365 until next Christmas. And we could drop you off anywhere…”
Nick laughed. “Thank you, Doctor, it is very tempting, but I think I might worry about getting back. Your time-keeping isn’t the most reliable.” He climbed into the sleigh. “Besides, if I leave those elves for too long they start getting up to all kind of mischief.”
“Well, the offer’s there if you ever feel like a break.”
“I’ll remember.” The sleigh lifted a couple of feet off the floor. Nick gathered the reins. “Thank you again, Doctor, and you too, Charley.”
“You’re very welcome,” Charley said warmly, stepping out of the way. “It was lovely to meet you. Goodbye.”
Nick raised a hand in salute, and the sleigh moved off, towards the doors. This time Charley watched, and saw the doors suddenly expand and stretch to accommodate the sleigh. As it disappeared, Nick’s voice, with its rumbling laugh, floated back to them.
“Well,” said the Doctor as the doors boomed shut and they were alone one more, “Where do you want to go now?”
“I think that the mulled wine and ice-skating you mentioned still sounds wonderful,” Charley told him.
He grinned. “Good idea. I think we’ve earned it, don’t you?”
“I do indeed.” She watched him bustle about setting coordinates, whistling snatches of carols. It was then that she noticed the two packages under the console. Each was wrapped in bright paper and bore a tag written in flowing script: To the Doctor and Charley — Merry Christmas and thank you! She smiled, and thought that she would leave them for whatever Christmas morning they might come across. “Merry Christmas, Doctor,” she said brightly.
His grin became a fond smile. “And a very Merry Christmas to you, too, Charley.
In fact,” he added as he pulled the dematerialisation lever and the ship ground into motion once more, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
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