When the Stars Begin to Fall by Shivver
Summary: Netty's last name fit her well. She continues to help where she can, for as long as she'll be able to.
Rating: All Ages
Categories: Tenth Doctor
Characters: Donna Noble, Wilfred Mott
Genres: Character Study
When the Stars Begin to Fall by Shivver
Chapter 1: Chapter 1Author's Notes: Beautiful Chaos, by Gary Russell, is one of my favorite Doctor Who novels and I've always wanted to write something for it. Netty Goodhart is Wilf's lady friend who helps the Doctor and Donna thwart an alien invasion. RTD apparently enjoyed the novel so much, he included her in "The End of Time", as one of the people in the chain of phone calls that ultimately located the Doctor.
Note that Netty suffers from Alzheimer's, and thus, this story may make for painful reading. If this is a problem for you, please avoid reading this.
Also, minor spoiler warning for the novel - you'll find out who the adversary was, but not much more.
Four silver-haired women sat in armchairs by the sunny window that looked out over the barren west garden. Nothing grew in the December frost, but they preferred the plain view over anything inside. The bright red ribbon and glittering tinsel adorning the walls and the decorative stockings hung over the gas fireplace barely attracted their notice, when they remembered it was there at all, which was seldom. One of the women chatted into her mobile, whilst the other two kept silent, either out of respect for her conversation or because they had nothing to say. The fourth one nattered on, oblivious to both the woman on the phone and the fact that no one was listening to her.
“Oh, yes,” Netty was saying to the person on the other end of the call. “If your sister saw anything… What’s that?... Oh, no, not me. I can’t go out now, not on my own. Ring Wilfred directly. He’s got his… his whatsis, I can’t recall, but it’s not dead for once, and he’s the one looking… Ta-ra, June, dear.” She held the mobile out in front of her and squinted at the tiny buttons, trying to decide which one would end the call. After a long moment, she gave up and clapped the device closed. She’d never quite believed that the thing would turn itself off, but what did it matter if it ran dry? Everyone knew where she was now, and they could ring the front desk if they really needed her. Which they didn’t.
She laid the device on the little table next to her armchair, just on the lacy edge of the doily under the lamp, where she’d likely not see it when she rose to go to tea. A forgotten item led to a visit later in the evening with one of the lovely nurses. It was a common enough ploy of hers that the mobile now sported a permanent sticker, shining white against the black plastic, printed with “NETTY” in large block letters.
She always made sure to lay the thing down on the sticker.
“Now.” Netty picked up the astronomy book that she’d laid aside on the coffee table when the mobile had rung and spread it across her lap. It wasn’t one of her technical journals - she’d donated those to the little astronomy club that oh-what’s-his-name belonged to - but a big book with colour photos of planets and nebulae and just enough scientific information on each of them to pique curiosity. It suited her in this time of life. Silent and baleful, the Helix Nebula stared up at her from the page. NGC 7293, she thought. Now why would I remember that and not the name of that nurse, the one who’s been bringing me my tea every day, for months now? Looking up, she clapped her hands together and grinned encouragement at the three ladies sitting with her in the sunny corner of the drawing room. “Where were we?”
“We was talkin’ about my Frederick, we was, when that thing scared us all out of our wits,” grumbled Alexandra, her eyes glued to the business end of her current knitting project. Scarves weren’t her favourite, but they had the advantage of being easy to pick back up after interruption. “Then you was off callin’ around all of London whilst we was sat here, and you shushed us like we was nothing.”
“‘We were doing no such thing,” sniffed Tricia as she laid a card on the table in front of her then tapped the deck in her hand on the table with an imperious huff. Whilst patience was her favourite way to spend her hours and she could rarely be found without a pack of cards on her person, she rarely had any patience for Alexandra. “You were wittering on about your old Fred whilst the rest of us were trying to have a lovely conversation about that programme on the telly last night, the one about the wild horses in the States. And you kept on and on, all things we’ve heard before. It’s a wonder we don’t shush you more.”
“‘Tweren’t about horses,” declared Annie. She rubbed hard at her fingers, her drawing pad and pencils fallen off her lap into the crevice of her armchair, forgotten. “‘Twas flowers. Yellow flowers. Hydrangeas. In pots.”
“Hydrangeas aren’t yellow,” snapped Alexandra.
“Nor in pots, mostly,” added Tricia.
“In the garden,” Annie continued as if no one else had spoken. “Behind the house on Miller’s Road. I’ll hide behind the bushes and Mum’ll never find me.”
“Yes, that’s right, dear,” soothed Netty, reaching over to pat her hand. Annie was the youngest of the four, by at least five years, but the furthest gone, and Netty tried not to see her as a glimpse of her own future. Annie had still been working, the operations manager of the Hendrik’s in Newcastle, when she was diagnosed, and her decline had been rapid. The nurses expected she’d be moved to another home, one with full supervision, by Easter. The other two women looked away, pretended she wasn’t there when she got like this, but Netty took it upon herself to ease her along. “The flowers are beautiful, aren’t they? All the pretty colours.” Annie smiled and gazed out of the window.
“So, what was that all about, then?” asked Tricia, waving the eight of spades at Netty’s “forgotten” mobile. “Your gentleman caller, that old boy Willard, what he have you calling all around London for?”
“Wilfred,” Netty corrected her, “and I only called June. Wilf is looking for the Doctor, you see, and if you need to find the Doctor, well, then that says it all, doesn’t it?”
“My Frederick’s a doctor,” announced Alexandra. She started searching her pockets. “Call your Wilfred back. I got his number here somewhere.”
Tricia reached over to pat Alexandra’s sleeve and settle her back into her knitting. “I hardly think Wilf needs a, er, a… a foot doctor this urgently.” She declined to remind her that Fred had passed away nearly ten years ago. “Must be a special doctor if he’s going through all this trouble.”
“Yes, very special” Netty agreed, a smile ghosting her lips as she remembered the Doctor, the Chaos Bodies, and the Mandragora Helix. She’d spent her life studying the stars but never saw anything as amazing as what he’d shown her that day. The fact that she still remembered was a miracle in itself, a result, the Doctor had told her, of the Helix itself clearing out her cobwebs for a bit.
“Your Wilfred’s all right, I hope?” prodded Tricia. “Not his rheumatism again?”
Netty blinked a moment before replying. She hadn’t gotten lost, but she’d certainly allowed herself to drift away from the conversation. “Oh! Oh, yes, he’s fine. The Doctor isn’t a doctor. That’s just his name. Wilf’s looking for him to fix things.”
“Fix things?” Alexandra parroted. “What things?”
“Things,” Netty insisted. “You know, the nightmares. You been having nightmares, haven’t you?”
Both women blanched. Alexandra bent over her knitting and refused to look up. Tricia misplaced a card and grumbled in an unladylike fashion.
“Bad dreams,” murmured Annie. “Can’t remember ‘em, but I’m scared to go to sleep.”
Netty nodded. “Yes, dear, and that’s why we need the Doctor.”
“How would that help?” demanded Tricia. “There’s none as can fix bad dreams. And why would he care about easing the nights of four women in a home?”
“That’s just how he is, Tricia,” replied Netty. “Could be just us four and he’d care as much as if it were the whole world. And it is the whole world, this time. Everyone’s having bad dreams.”
“That’s nonsense, that is,” spat Alexandra. ‘The whole world’s not having bad dreams.”
“They are,” Netty insisted, “and none can remember, except Wilf. He says it’s a face -”
“Laughing,” Annie murmured. Fishing for a pencil, she scribbled on a blank sheet of her pad and held it up. All three women trembled at the hastily-sketched face, jeering at them out of the paper.
“Put that away!” hissed Tricia. “It’s horrible.” Annie tore the page out and crumpled it up, scrunching it as tight as she could in her weak fist.
“Yes, laughing,” Netty whispered. “That’s why we need the Doctor. Wilf said he remembered the word ‘Broadfell’, so I called June because her sister Emily lives out that way, across from the prison. She used to make these delightful lemon cakes and so we’d visit after… after...” She trailed off and fell silent as she realised she’d no idea who she’d been talking about. She didn’t know anyone who made lemon cakes, or why they were relevant to anything.
“Still,” Tricia sniffed, pointedly turning her shoulder away from Annie and the face crushed in the palm of her hand, “though I wish him the best of luck finding him, I don’t see how it’ll help at all.”
“Of course you don’t, sweetheart,” Netty replied as she prepared to tell them… again. Of course, both Wilf and the Doctor had sworn her to secrecy, but perhaps this was one perk of their situation: none of them remembered any of it the next day, so she could talk about him again and again. “The Doctor is the most amazing young man. He fixes things, and he’ll fix this, just you wait.”
“That’s poppycock, that is,” Alexandra scoffed, stabbing at her knitting to emphasise her words. “The whole world having bad dreams and some doctor fixing it all.”
“It is not. He’s done it before and he’ll do it again,” Netty insisted. “I saw him. Back when there was that face in the sky, few months back.” All three women stared blankly at her, which Netty expected. “You don’t remember, but I do. Ask the nurses, they’ll tell you. But I was there. It was one of those aliens again, and the Doctor defeated it and sent it away, up into space.”
“You were never, madam!” exclaimed Tricia. She slammed her deck of cards down on the table. “Now I know you’re just making it up. Faces in the sky and aliens!”
Netty smiled. “It’s the truth as I’m sitting here. So many aliens running around now. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
“I’ve seen aliens,” Annie murmured. “Why, there was one here the other day, in the fitting rooms in men’s, just over there.” She pushed herself to her feet, spilling her art supplies to the floor, and turned to yell at the empty corner by the fireplace. “It was! You never believe me, but I know what I saw!” She stomped out.
Tricia sniffed. “Poor Annie.”
“Poor all of us,” responded Alexandra, as she always did.
“Yeah.” Looking for any distraction, Netty glanced down at her book again and idly wondered if the nebula on the page was where the Mandragora Helix had gone. Odd coincidence if it was, the Helix going somewhere us humans named “Helix”. She turned the page, traced the clouds of the Eagle Nebula with a wrinkled fingertip, then continued her story. “But you see, that’s what the Doctor’s like.”
“Ah,” breathed Tricia, “there she is again. You always choose the worst times, Netty. With you and Annie out, I’m stuck here listening to her blather.” She jabbed a finger at the knitter.
Netty sighed. “I went again, didn’t I?”
“An hour ago,” supplied Alexandra, “or maybe two, can’t tell. And you picked right back up again, talking about, oh, I don’t know, someone.”
Netty laughed, a good cover-up as she regained her bearings. “Oh, I know you’re not listening, but I’ll keep talking anyway. The Doctor, that’s who I was talking about. You know, I’m not long for this world, or at least I’m not long for being me, but even now, the Doctor taught me something about myself. He asked me to do something I never thought I would - something I never thought I could - and you know what? I did it.”
“Oh, one of those, is he?” Alexandra scoffed, rolling her eyes. “Almost married one like him. Got himself deployed to that little one, the one right after the Big One, and he proposed to me the night before he left. Down on bended knee, chip of a ring, the whole thing. Almost said yes. Lucky I didn’t. He never came home.”
Netty reached over and patted her hand. “Oh, I’m sorry, Alexandra, dear.”
Rolling her eyes, Alexandra batted the comfort away. “Nothing like that. He got three birds up the duff over there, in the first two months. One of their das caught up with him, shotgun in hand, made him make her honest. I saw him, oh, ten years after. When he come home from…” She faltered, then waved a hand like she was batting away a fly. “When he come to visit his mum. Cutest little half-breeds, he had.”
“Well,” Netty drawled as she looked down at her book, the Eagle Nebula still soaring across the page, “the Doctor brings out the best in everybody. Wilfred adores him, and, of course, Donna - that’s Wilf’s granddaughter. I’m sure she’ll visit sometime and you’ll get to meet her. Now, she’s a fine young woman, learning so much from him. She’s taking every advantage of traveling with him. However!” She closed her book and placed it on the coffee table. “Best I get back and freshen up before tea.” She struggled to her feet and fetched the book, hugging it to her chest as she picked her way past her companions. “Takes me so long to find my hats now, even in my little room. That’s another thing. He liked my hats.”
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
“Yes, Wilf, dear. If you say so, I believe you.”
Wilf knew Netty believed him. She had to. She no longer remembered anything recent except those things worn into her calcified memory through daily routine - the nurses and her fellow residents, for a very few - so she depended on him to tell her the truth and believed every word he said. They sat by the window in her room that overlooked the home’s car park, him on the neatly-tucked bed and her in the armchair by the table where she took her tea.
“That’s good, it is,” he confirmed, taking her hand and caressing it as he spoke, “because it’s true, and you should know. If it hadn’t been for you, we might never have found him.”
“Oh, really? That’s nice.” Netty smiled absently, not quite sure how to take credit for something she couldn’t remember doing.
“After I called you, you called June, and she called…” Wilf shook his head. “Her sister or somesuch. Minnie’s got it all straight, I can’t be bothered. But you did, and we found him, the Doctor, and he sorted it all.” When Netty looked at him blankly, he added, “The nightmares.”
She brightened. “Oh, yes! The nightmares. My nights have been a bit more restful. That was his doing, was it? That’s a mercy. You’ll thank him for me, won’t you, dear?”
Wilf grunted, the misery that lurked in his eyes deepening to glistening tears. “Can’t promise that, Netty. The Doctor, you see, when he left, after that whole palaver, he was dying.”
“Oh, my lord,” Netty gasped, pressing a hand to her breast.
“I don’t know how long he’s got. Not much, I’d say,” Wilf breathed. “He said… he said I’d see him one last time, but I don’t know when, or how.” He shook his head sadly. “And I think I’m lucky to get even that. He’ll be going on, o’course, afterwards, like I told you, new man and all that, but I don’t think he ever looks back.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Netty agreed as she took Wilf’s hand just as he had done hers a minute earlier. “I expect that’s how he’s always been. Man like that, he’s got so much past, he can’t afford to look backwards. He’s got to keep his eyes on ahead.”
“I reckon he does.” Wilf sniffled, dragging the back of his hand across his lips.
Netty searched for anything to say. “Well, dear, and, er, how is Sylvia?” She glanced up at the door. “Where is she? She didn’t come up?”
“Nah, she’s at work. Donna drove me. The warehouse is closed today, and she thought I’d save on the taxi.” Netty followed his gaze out of the window to the ginger woman wandering the pavement, laughing raucously into her mobile.
“Oh, there she is. Home for a visit, is she? That’s sweet of her, coming all this way. Why doesn’t she come up? We haven’t caught up since that business with the Helix. The Doctor should bring her by more often.”
Wilf swallowed hard, carefully considering how he should respond. Netty and Donna had seen each other since then at least three times; during the occasional short stops in Chiswick on the way to the rest of the universe, Donna had insisted on visiting Netty once she got settled in the home. Netty remembered neither that nor that Donna no longer traveled, nor the news about the Doctor that he’d imparted not two minutes ago.
White lies. Wilf had gotten good at coming up with them, for both Donna’s and Netty’s sakes. One had no way of telling that he wasn’t being quite truthful, and the other wouldn’t remember at all what he’d said.
“Oh, she’s got to stay outside,” he explained. “The Doctor said something about just getting back from some planet and the TARDIS filters out all them bacteria, but better to err on the side of caution.”
“That’s just like her,” Netty smiled. “Always so worried for me.”
“She does worry,” he agreed. “But I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’ve got to go. Donna’s gotta get the car back before Sylvia gets home. I just wanted to see how you was doing, and let you know why I couldn’t come by on Boxing Day.”
“Boxing Day?” Netty queried. “Was it Christmas?”
“Yes, it was.” He rose from his chair and stooped to kiss Netty on the cheek.
“I hope it was a nice one.”
“It was,” Wilf lied, a whole-cloth, bold-faced lie. “A wonderful holiday with my two girls. Now, you behave, Netty Goodhart.” He took both her hands and encircled them in his. “Stop giving the nurses trouble, cos I know you are, and I’ll be back next week. Sylvia’s got New Year’s off and she promised she’d bring me up here for the whole afternoon.”
Netty raised their clasped hands to her lips. “Thank you, Wilfred.” Her smile didn’t quite hide the fear in her eyes. Wilf knew she was well aware that she’d lost most of their brief visit already.
Donna spotted Wilf the moment he stepped through the front door of the home and, shouting a hurried good-bye, clapped her mobile closed and trotted off to unlock the doors of the tiny blue car. “Come on, then,” she called to her grandfather, “step it up! Mum’ll be home in fifteen and if the car isn’t there for her, it’s me who’ll get it, not you.”
Wilf trundled along as quickly as he could, which wasn’t all that speedy anymore. His adventure of a few days earlier had invigorated him, dropping ten years off at the time, but he’d since then returned to slow, tired, and creaky. “Sorry, sweetheart. It’ll be fine, traffic shouldn’t be bad,” he said as he climbed into the passenger’s seat and wrestled with the seat belt. “Appreciate you doing this for me. Would’ve been a waste, taking a cab all the way out here for fifteen minutes’ visit.”
“That only one of you will remember,” Donna chuckled. Wilf shot her a rare angry glare that she didn’t see as she backed the car out and sped them toward home. “Don’t know where you found her, that Netty, but I suppose it’s a good thing, you keeping her company like that. You said she wasn’t married, no kids to take care of her, right? Oh, but you’ll like this. Veena just told me - it was her I was talking with whilst you were up there - well, she said that Kay’s going bonkers cos she and Dave haven’t conceived, so...”
Letting her witter on, Wilf settled back and gazed out of the window, seeing none of the scenery that rushed past. Each visit, Netty got a bit worse, forgot a bit more, and when he left, when he stepped back out into the clear air and sunshine, it got a bit harder to return, to let his heart break as he watched her slip away. One day soon, he knew, she won’t recognise him, and he wasn’t sure if he could take that.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He wasn’t supposed to be the last one left. But with the Doctor gone, Donna not remembering any of her time with him, Netty soon to lose the bit that she got to see, and Sylvia never even knowing as it had happened all around her, none of them was who they should be, and he was the only one who knew.
He’d promised the Doctor that he’d look up every night on his granddaughter’s behalf, but really, he was doing it for all of them, keeping their memories alive as long as he could. That’s my honour and my duty, he thought. Every night, up the hill, the old soldier stands guard against time.
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