Of a Lifetime
When she was young, Rita knew a man called the Doctor.
She isn't young any more, of course. Far from it, and she's not sure exactly how that happened. If the Doctor were here, perhaps she'd ask him about it. He claimed to know the hidden secrets of Time; maybe he'd be able to explain how one moment you could be a young girl, full of piss and vinegar, ready for adventure, and then in what seemed like the next, you'd become a blind old lady.
However it happened, she's no longer young, and her eyes haven't seen anything for a good long time, but when she closes them and puts aside her old-lady thoughts -- all the aches and pains, and the sense of the future running out -- she can still see him, just as he looked in that moment when they first met.
He was there in front of her as she let the door to her parents' house swing closed behind her and stepped out into an otherwise eerily deserted street: a tall, skinny white man with a bad suit, mad hair, and a slightly manic gleam in his eye.
"Ah!" he exclaimed. "Just the person I needed to see! Here, hold this." He shoved something into her hands: a large metal box with blinking lights and strangely marked dials and a large yellow button in the middle. Her hands curled around it reflexively, and suddenly she was holding it without ever quite intending to.
"Now," he said, "what I need you to do is-- I'm sorry. What's your name?"
"Rita-Anne," she said, wondering even as the words left her mouth whether it was wise to give this bizarre stranger her identity.
"Rita-Anne. Rita-Anne. That's a lovely name, Rita-Anne. Bit like 'Sarah Jane.' I knew a Sarah Jane once. Well, still do, really. You don't exactly stop knowing people. Particularly not people like Sarah Jane. Not that it's quite the same, Sarah Jane, Rita-Anne, but it's similar, don't you think? Anyway, Rita-Anne." He rolled her name around in his mouth as if it were some sort of exotic sweet. "What I need you do to is to press that yellow button, right there. That's right, the big one. Can't miss it. Just press it and hold it 'til I get back. Dead simple, but it's important. Really important. Really, really importantly important. All right?"
He might have been as mad as he looked. He might have been playing a particularly stupid joke. He might have just handed her some sort of bomb. She had absolutely no reason to believe him about anything. But she looked into his eyes and saw... something. Something she didn't understand then and never has understood since, but something right. She pressed the button.
"Good girl!" He clapped her on the shoulder. "Knew I could count on you! Now, just stay right there and hold that button!" He dashed off down the street towards she didn't know what, pausing only for a moment, just before turning the corner, to shout, "Nice to meet you, by the way! I'm the Doctor!"
And that was how it began.
He told her later that she'd probably saved the world. She's tried not to let it give her a big head, but on days when the perpetual darkness closes in on her more heavily than usual, she thinks about it and feels a little lighter.
That first meeting is still crisp and sharp-edged in her mind, but the days that followed it have blurred over the years into a vibrant swirl of color and sound, confusion and wonder, excitement and fear. She remembers the details mainly in snips and snatches: the pumping of her heart and pounding of her feet as she ran from some monster out of a lunatic's nightmare, a brief glimpse of stars in an alien sky, the ash-gray face of the first dead man she'd ever seen, the Doctor's flashing smile as he triumphantly performed some incomprehensible technological miracle.
She remembers the ending well enough, though, remembers him asking her to come with him. He seemed so hesitant and shy about it. Completely unlike him, she thought, though it occurred to her that you could probably travel with this man for a hundred years and still not know him well enough never to be surprised by him. It was an oddly charming thought, as well as a frightening one, and for a moment she was tempted.
Instead she shook her head and said, "Thanks, but I think I've had enough adventure to last me a lifetime." She thinks back now sometimes and wonders what might have happened if she'd said "yes," but she never dwells on it for long. There are a great many things she said when she was that young that have turned out, from a mature perspective, to be utter nonsense, but that doesn't seem to have been one of them. After all, it has lasted her a lifetime.
"Oh, don't say that," he replied and put his hands on her shoulders. For a disorienting moment, she thought he might be going to kiss her, but he only smiled and said, "There's more than one kind of adventure, you know. You, Rita-Anne, have a whole lifetime ahead of you. A whole, wonderful human lifetime, full of, oh, hot dinners and smiling babies and love and arguments and music. All sorts of things. And trees! Trees are good. There'll always be trees, maybe to sit under and have a nice picnic. I almost never get to do that. I envy you, really, all those trees."
She was never the sort to be easily rendered speechless, not then and not since, but something about the expression on his face and the look in his eyes left her unable to do anything but nod until he released her from his grip.
"And tell your grandson -- when you meet him, that is, I mean, you know, when he exists -- tell him..." He broke off and stared down at the pavement, rubbing the back of his neck and muttering something about "timelines" that Rita didn't quite catch. "Never mind. Don't tell him anything. In fact, better not to mention me to him at all. Just... be proud of him. He's a lot less useless than he looks. Or will be."
He grinned at her, and before she could answer he was gone.
She never has told Mickey any of it. She used to make a bedtime story of it for his father, though, editing and embellishing a bit to make it better suited for a child's ears, trying to impress on him the wonder of it all, the sense of possibility, the idea that even people like her -- like him -- could do marvelous things and make a difference in the world.
She only realized many years later that she'd always left out the ending, that part about the babies and the trees. She blames herself for that now. She's sure it must be part of the reason he chose to go running off to follow some damn-fool dream of adventure to Spain and left her behind with another child to raise.
It's that, more than the Doctor's instructions, that have kept her from ever talking about any of it to Mickey. And he has turned out to be a good boy, really. Even if he does need a smacking sometimes, she's proud of him. But still, she feels a little sorry for him. If Jackson had too much of a restless spirit, Mickey's is far too restful. He'd be perfectly content, she thinks, to watch football every day and never bother to do anything at all with his life, not even properly appreciate those trees and picnics.
She never says anything to him about it -- well, nothing more than the usual suggestions about getting a job and making something of himself, because that's the sort of thing a parental figure is supposed to say. But sometimes she silently touches his hand and thinks, I hope someday you get the kind of chance I did. I hope that's what the Doctor meant, all those years ago. And if you get that chance, you take it. Do something, be someone, so that when you're old and blind and tired like me, you'll still always have that part of yourself inside you.
What she says to him instead is, "I only give you a hard time because I know there's more to you than there seems. I want you to make me proud, Mickey."
"I'm trying," he always answers, sometimes angrily, sometimes tiredly, sometimes with a sob in his voice that nearly breaks her heart. "Gran, I'm trying, but I don't know how."
"You will," she tells him, and touches his face. "You will."
Sometimes she adds, "A little bird told me." That always makes both of them smile.
"You always go around trusting birds, Gran?" he asks, the phrase having long ago become a private joke between them.
"No," she says, "Not really. But if I trust you, then it doesn't really matter what that little bird thinks, or anyone else for that matter, does it?"
"No, he says. "No, I guess not."
He doesn't really believe that; she can hear it in his voice, every time. He doesn't even understand it. But that's all right. He's very young, yet, and he has time.