“Right, dear, I’ll just pop over to the corner shop. Won’t be a moment.” After thirty-four years of marriage, Ian still hadn’t mastered going shopping without forgetting something on Mrs. Chesterton’s list. They were too old now to fight about petty things, or even big things. If Tommy’s insistence in living on the dole, at his age, gave them sleepless nights, they didn’t admit to it. He said they were too old to be living on their own; they maintained a stiff if silent disapproval of his living with his girlfriend, without any aspirations to marriage.
“We’re too old to get married,” Barbara had said when they’d returned from the TARDIS in 1965.
“Barbara,” Ian had said, in what he hoped was one of his finer moments, “we’re too old not to.”
Now he was a bit slower getting around the corner and back for tea and biscuits–and milk. Of all the things he’d seen, it was still difficult to accept that milk didn’t come in glass bottles to your doorstep anymore. It came in cartons in supermarkets, organic and raised without hormones and with nutrition facts on the side of it.
Walking the same streets where they’d lived for over two decades, Ian thought about one of his and Barbara’s first conversations, after they’d gotten back, after they’d ridden the bus and come up with more and more wildly extravagant excuses for their two-year absence. They’d stopped in a café, and Ian had said, “Okay. What have you been craving? All this time in the TARDIS?”
Barbara had looked embarrassed. “Tea will be just fine, Ian.”
“No, no. Barbara–pick something you’ve really missed!” And he’d touched her hand, boldly. “I don’t care right now that all we’ve got in our pockets is outdated currency!”
“Rock at the seaside,” Barbara had said dreamily.
“Sunday roast, like my mother used to make.”
“Fresh-baked scones with jam and butter.” Despite herself, she’d been enjoying it.
“Bubble and squeak.”
She’d looked at him deeply. “Cake made with sweet potato and margarine, like they made during the War.”
Everything nostalgic and comforting, they had called it up. They’d eaten until they’d gotten sick, then finished it off with a big piece of chocolate cake and a glass of cold milk.
Ian was standing in the dairy aisle, looking at his own reflection in the glass. The smiling face was familiar, but so old. It was 2000, and Susan–Elizabeth Susan Chesterton, but she had frustratingly taken to calling herself by her middle name–had gotten her parents a brand-new Macintosh computer. Ian made a point of knowing how it worked, but it was Barbara who was at it day and night now that they were retired, typing away mysteries in the vein of Agatha Christie. Pity they’d never got to the 1920s and met her.
So! Susan was proud that her parents were Millennium-compatible. Little did she know the level of technological sophistication they had witnessed and, in many cases, combated. The Doctor had always seemed so old to Ian, so unaccountably old. Now Ian wondered. Maybe having grandchildren made you old.
Ian frowned over the boxes of discount tea, the cold carton of milk in his once-steady hand. He still preferred proper tea, made from tea leaves, in a pot. Barbara had always prepared it that way. Until they’d retired–and this was a minor point of contention, if there could be contention–and then she’d gone for those tea bags. He guessed because she was always at the computer, and it took too long to make tea and clean the pot.
Dear Barbara: I an had seen her hold knives to Aztec throats, drive trucks through Dalek-ruled London, stand up to bloodthirsty Revolutionaries . . . He’d been hard-pressed at times like these to hide his love for her, though at the time he hadn’t really recognized it as such. But since their return, she’d done great thing too: threaten to resign at school over discrimination against a student, remain calm and cool at a bank robbery, manage Susan when she got pregnant between college and University–damned if he knew how she’d done that.
He’d picked the tea at last and had gotten a packet of rather ascetic biscuits. The lines at checkout were long; he looked with disinterest at the headlines in the newspapers. Though they’d loved being home, there had been an unspoken feeling that nothing in their lives would ever top their experiences with the Doctor. They’d gone traveling at first, on safari in South Africa, to Nepal, to the Grand Canyon. They had albums full of pictures, and something to talk about, to cover the awkward silences when they were bursting to tell their friends about their adventures.
The hardest was keeping it from the children. They hoped, in a vague sort of way, to reveal it to them eventually–this phantom period of their lives, when they’d been offered and extraordinary chance to teach underprivileged kids in Brazil–that was their lie. Ian suspected next to the mysteries, Barbara was writing a great novel or memoir about the TARDIS. But he could see how she ached to tell Tommy and Susan about the chocolatl of the pre-Columbian Aztecs, or the Chinese court in the thirteenth-century, the smells and textures. Susan seemed oblivious. Tommy, Ian thought, suspected something.
Ian put his purchases on the conveyor belt and happened to notice a CD on offer–The Beatles Greatest Hits 1963-1969. Without really thinking, he picked it up and was carrying it until the cashier cleared her throat. “Oh, this too, I suppose,” he said, irritated. The woman let him bag it, and he let the people behind him wait as he paid by cheque.
He rounded the corner, already imagining the taste of the biscuits, when the wind was knocked out of him. He was thrown against a wall. If not taken by surprise, even at sixty-six, Ian could have had a go. As it was, the three assailants grabbed him and held him down, and his second’s hesitation at calling for help sealed his fate.
They had teleported, Ian realized, in a manner similar to the method of travel on the planet of Marinus. The sensation was not unpleasant, and it was quick. If he’d been expecting it, he could have made a run for it.
He was unprepared for the surge of white light as he was dragged behind what looked like a cage. He dropped his plastic sack. The milk splashed all over the floor, soaking his socks. The kidnappers, shouting at him in a language he didn’t understand, kicked the milk carton. “Not the biscuits,” Ian groaned. They were crushed underfoot as the creatures–whom he now saw resembled small black imps with helmets–left him in his prison, shouting at him and then stomping off.
It took him a minute to catch his breath. His first thought was would he ever see Barbara again? For one absurd moment he blinked and wondered whether he wasn’t really young again and on one of their TARDIS adventures, Barbara young and vital and beside him. He held out his hands and saw the liver spots and wrinkles. “You’re an old man, Ian,” he said softly.
Well, the Doctor had been, too, and even if he was an alien, he’d gotten out of his own scrapes. Ian looked around his “cell.” There was a low couch, a drain in the floor, and a long cord that led out through the bars. He tried the drain. It was fastened tightly. He followed the cord, his hands barely fitting through the bars. It connected to some kind of rectangular device, rather like a turntable. Could it be the release for the bars? Unless it controlled life support, he couldn’t see the harm in trying the multitude of buttons on its face. Years ago, with the TARDIS’ help, he could have read the script on it.
He tried all of them, the ones he could reach anyway, with methodical precision. Not much happened. Then there was a whirring noise, and out came a drawer almost identical to the one that played Compact Discs in their Mac. Ian inspected it, straining his ears for the little black imps. Intrigued, he scrabbled for his Beatles CD. He tore off the plastic and inserted it. It fit, sort of. The machine made horrible noises. Ian was sure his captors would hear and steeled himself for the worst. Instead, suddenly the CD seemed to be read in the machine. At full blast, John and Paul were singing, “I think I’m gonna be sad, I think it’s today, yeah!”
Then the CD gave an almighty lurch. It took a few minutes of terror for Ian to realize that the CD was stuck on “Ticket to Ride.” My God, this was a nightmare! Ian pressed all the buttons. Nothing. He tried to rip out the cord. He cut his fingers. He tried to squeeze through the bars. Still the Beatles sang on and on. He heard “Ticket to Ride” twenty times and felt sure, if he ever got out of this alive, he never wanted to listen to the Beatles again. Not that the children ever listened to them much–Susan had run around in tight jeans and voluptuary pink and listened to punk and metal and all that noise.
“We’ll be too old to be parents,” Barbara had said, after they’d enjoyed a wonderful first year of marriage. But he’d convinced her; he desperately wanted a family. Perhaps the children weren’t happy to have two teachers as parents; they’d rebelled enough to make that clear. But when it came down to it, Ian thought, their children were the combination of all that was best in them. Despite everything, he loved them more than anything–even his travels with the Doctor.
For the fortieth chorus of “My baby don’t care,” Ian heard talking around the corner, and he was amazed that it seemed to be in English. He couldn’t see very well beyond the bars and the disco machine, but he made an effort. Was it friend or foe? “. . . all right, Doctor, I just want to check something. It’s this music–it sounds an awful lot like the Beatles!”
Ian immediately recognized the voice as his own and sunk back, waiting for the universe to implode. When it didn’t, and after the forty-second, “She’s got a ticket to ride,” he dared to look at the young Ian. He was glad he wasn’t the type prone to heart attacks.
“I say, can you help me out of this?” he asked, his voice trembling. He hid himself as best he could under his hat and rain coat and hoped his voice wasn’t recognizable.
Young Ian ran over. “Are you trapped in there?”
“It’s no use trying the bars. I’ve been teleported in and no idea how the locking mechanism works.”
“Where were you teleported from?”
“Never mind, it’s imperative that I get back there!” My God, I sound like the Doctor he thought with amazement. “Try reading what’s on that white machine, I daresay you know how.”
The young Ian had to shout above the Liverpudlian din. “All right.”
“I put a Compact Disc in that machine, it seems to have been designed for something similar.”
“It’s like a record,” old Ian explained, exasperated, to his thirty-year-younger self. “That’s why we’re hearing the Beatles, all right?”
“That explains it,” said young Ian. “It seems to indicate on this machine that it takes bits of knowledge, stores them on these Compact Disc-things you’re talking about, and distributes them.” Old Ian tried to think–what did Susan call those things? CD heaters? CD chillers? “It’s got instructions for cutting open people’s brains and storing their memories and knowledge in some kind of digital form.”
“Stop being so morbid, Chesterton.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing.” CD burner! That’s what it was! “Can you use it to get me out of here?”
“Well, I could ask the Doctor for help . . .”
Too late–old Ian saw the old man scuttling in the room with his hands over his ears. He was so happy with his cardiologist at this moment–for warning him against high cholesterol–that he could have cried. “Chesterton, turn off that infernal noise!” the Doctor snapped.
“I’m sorry, Doctor, but I can’t.” Old Ian shrunk back, holding his breath. “Maybe you can help with this.” Young Ian pointed to the disco machine.
“Why, that’s a Claxx S-43 combination transporter and distribution device.” The Doctor stroked his chin. “Barbarous machine, but quite ingenious. Yes, quite ingenious.” The Doctor reached over and started pressing buttons with a random delight that had always frightened Ian. Both Ians were annoyed. The Doctor couldn’t stop the music, but he did look troubled. “Something’s not right here.”
“I’ve been kidnapped,” old Ian cried, his fear of losing his life in 2000 overwhelming his fear of destroying the time line. “By three men in helmets. They’ll be back any minute, so . . . Can you get me out or can’t you?”
The Doctor moved closer, peered through the bars. He seemed to give old Ian a sly smile. “Come along, Chesterton,” the Doctor shouted above the Beatles, “let’s get this poor fellow back to his normal time and place.” He tapped the machine with his cane. “Read me that, would you?”
Young Ian sighed. “It says, return coordinates, question mark. By the way, Doctor, where have you left the girls?”
Old Ian never found out, because he then found himself with sopping socks on the Isle of Dogs, wet tea bags in his pocket and Lennon/McCartney pounding in his head. A sign was critiquing Tony Blair and Labour, so he assumed he was in the right time. It was only then he remembered just that incident, from young Ian’s perspective of course. How was that possible? Is that how time worked?
He stood for a long time in the middle of the street, waiting for the TARDIS to dematerialize, waiting for the Doctor to step out, to give him a lecture on time/space mechanics. He recalled a conversation he and Barbara had had late one night in their bedroom. “Do you miss it?” she’d asked. “If you could go back, would you?”
“And miss all this? Miss our life together? Barbara, you must be joking!”
“I’m not, Ian.” He couldn’t see her face in the dark. “What we have is marvelous, it’s true, but don’t you wish you’d stayed? What would have happened if we hadn’t used that Dalek time ship to take us back?”
At the time he’d said the alternative scarcely bore thinking about. Now, she’d never believe what had happened on the way to get tea bags and milk.
Then again, maybe she would.